Original Title: When They See Us
Country: United States
Creator: Ava DuVernay
Genre: Biography, Drama
The history of a notorious case of five teenagers wrongful convicted of a brutal rape and assault.
The following review will contain sensitive topics, like rape. You have been warned.
First of all, let’s talk about some other cases. The rapists in the cases below are adults and white, while the boys from When They See Us are black and Hispanic teenagers.
The first is the notorious case of the rapist Brock Turner, sometimes called “The Stanford Swimmer” by the media. He is the guy who was caught sexually abusing an unconscious victim.
After being found guilty he could face up to 14 years of prison, so the rapist’s father said Turner had already paid “a steep price… for 20 minutes of action.”, referring to the sexual assault his son had committed.
The judge Aaron Persky, apparently agreed with the rapist and his father, sentencing him to six months in jail. He was actually released after only three months served.
Moving forward, the case of Shane Piche, a 26-year-old bus driver who rapped a 14-year-old girl, and got a sentence of 10 years probation, meaning he is not going to spend one single day in jail.
The Judge assigned this rapist only to the lowest-level of sex-offenders list, so for the law, he is not in risk of committing a similar crime and his address will not be made public in the future.
Justice James P. McClusky had taken into consideration that he made only one victim and that it was he had no prior arrests. It seems like the victim is never important, just an inconvenient detail for rapists and their judges.
If I searched a little further I bet I could fill a book with the American justice system being soft on white men, but I will add just the case of Michael Wysolovski.
The 33-years-old man unlawfully imprisoned a teenage girl for more than a year. He kept her in a dog cage and forced her to “have sex” with him, or in the proper words, raped her.
Wysolovski served eight months before being sentenced to 10 years. The remaining 9-plus years he will serve on probation, like Shane Piche, there will be no jail time.
Is important to say that even though a huge part of the American authorities have a bias against the black and Hispanic population, wrongful convictions and coerced confessions are not a weapon they use exclusively on these populations.
Netflix has a very famous docuseries about the wrongful and biased conviction of a white man for rape and assault and a subsequent set up for murder. Making a Murderer (2015-) features the clear coerced confession of a young man intellectually challenged.
In an article by Robert Kolker for The Marshall Project (published in partnership with WIRED), it is explained the evolution of the interrogation tactics used by the various police detectives in the U.S.
I will try to summarize it, but if you want to know in real detail, go to their very competent report.
Before the decade of 1930, torture was the interrogation technique, until it was abolished by the Supreme Court in 1936. The next two decades, a detective called John E. Reid made his name as an interrogator in more than 300 hundred murder cases.
In the decade of 1960 Reid and the Northwestern University law professor, Fred Inbau formalized the technique in “Criminal Interrogation and Confessions”. This technique became almost a norm for police, even for those without formal training in this specific method.
The Reid Technique is known even in the popular culture, with the little room of interrogation pressing the suspect until they get a confession. In real life, the detectives even use deceiving and psychological torture in the extracting of the confession.
The creators of such method claimed that the investigators could identify a lie with 85 percent accuracy, a claim with no evidence to back it up. They base the claim in the “behavioral analysis interview” made by the investigators.
However, in 1987, the forensic psychologist Günter Köhnken conducted a study in which was found that the detectives could not identify lies better than the average person.
Lots of law enforcement denies that an innocent person would confess to something they haven’t done, however, that’s incorrect and many there are many studies about false memories.
Just to be sure, I searched on Google and you can do the same on the search engine of your choice. I usually do my searches on DuckDuckGo, but this time I gave Google Scholar a try.
Despite some denial, there are data that back the existence of false confessions.
According to The Innocence Project, 28% of the cases later exonerated by DNA evidence involved false confession and 49% of these false confessions were made by individuals 21 years-old or younger.
From 1989 to 06 of June 2019, The National Registry of Exonerations, 2,460 individuals were exonerated of wrongful convictions. False confessions and official misconducts are among the main contributing factors for the convictions.
If we consider that 2,460 are just the current number of people exonerated, imagine how many more innocents are incarcerated right now because of people with bad intentions, like the one we will talk about next.
Today she looks like any rich granny, but back in the day she has had a large part in the conviction of the five boys and even after the lie was discovered and the conviction vacated, she kept saying they were guilty.
In 2012 Fairstein was involved in trying to silence one of the victims of Harvey Weinstein. It seems like she is not so concerned with justice for sexual assault victims when the abuser is a powerful white man.
Her conduct with Weinstein was consistent with the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, also in 2012. She helped the District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr with the decision not to charge the French politician.
When the abuser is a powerful white man, Linda Fairstein does not care about the victim at all, in fact, she chooses the side of the abuser.
From the boy’s conviction until the convictions were vacated in 2002, Fairstein published five books, making her name as a novel author. After the release of When They See Us she was dropped by her publisher.
When They See Us
A night in Central Park, various occurrences happened independently. Many bikers and joggers were harassed and physically assaulted by a large group of boys, most of them black.
Later that night, in a different location of the park, a white woman is found nearly dead from being severely beaten and raped.
The police, led by Linda Fairstein, choose five boys to set them up for the assault and rape of the woman. To that, they manipulate some evidence, hide others, manipulate the timeline to fit their narrative.
But the final nail to the coffin of their case, the police manages to get the coerced confession of some of the boys through intimidation and lies.
The mini-series have four episodes, each one with one phase of the case.
The first episode shows us the setup and coercion of the five boys, leading to their prison. The second portrays the trials and convictions. The third episode is the release of the four younger boys and their life after prison.
The last episode is the suffering during incarceration in adult prisons of Korey Wise, the only one with 16-years-old during the arrest. And of course, the concussion for the series with the exoneration.
The boys are Anton McCray (Caleel Harris and Jovan Adepo), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk and Justin Cunningham), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse and Chris Chalk), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares) and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome, as a teenager and adult).
Counting the teenagers and adult actors, the only one I knew previously was Jharrel Jerome, who I knew from Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), the Best Picture Winner of 2017.
However, there are many important names in the series as a whole. Some of the names are Michael Kenneth Williams as Anton’s father, John Leguizamo as Raymond’s father and Vera Farmiga as the prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer.
The whole show is intense from the beginning and after watching the first episode I was so disgusted that I had to stop for around two days, then search a little about the real case to feel comfortable enough to get back to it.
I think the emotional reaction to injustice is something common in most normal people unless you are a disgusting piece of garbage like without a sense of humanity like Linda Fairstein.
The series version of Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) constantly call the boys “animals”, and that’s very telling. For her as a character, and I believe as a real person as well, don’t feel like the boys are real human beings, like the colonizers who discussed if the African and Indigenous peoples had souls.
I saw that some people felt offended that Donald Trump was mentioned in the series for something he actually did and that actually played a role in the case. I know that the Trump following is more like a cult than a political orientation, so I should not give it much attention to it.
However, Trump’s full-page ad asking for the death penalty, was a symbol of how the media gave the guilty verdict before the trial could even take place. It’s not about right or left like many would like you to believe, it’s a matter of basic human rights.
The stronger point of the series is the acting, especially the boys when young, they are very believable being intimidated by the police until they confess. We see their happiness transform drastically into desperation and the actors do it perfectly.
Of the four younger ones as adults I think Freddy Miyares as Raymond Santana is the one with most shine, maybe he got a little more screen time, I’m not sure, but he definitely made justice to the screen time he was given.
His father, played by John Leguizamo was also great. Leguizamo surprised me in adult life because I knew him best from The Pest (1997) I saw when I was a kid. However, everything I remember watching with him more recently was quite good with solid performances by him.
I really liked his work as a stand-up comedian as well, the only thing I watched was John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons (2018), but it was really nice and different from what I was used to.
Vera Farmiga is another one I usually like to watch. In When They See Us she plays Elizabeth Lederer, the prosecutor that think is making the right choice prosecuting the boys, even though sometimes hesitant about the evidence.
She is a great and very established actress and makes a very good job with this character. She is not as hateful as Linda Fairstein, but still kind get on our nerves sometimes.
The real Elizabeth Lederer recently decided to resign as a part-time lecturer at the Columbia Law School after the release of the series. In a letter to the University, she seemed a much more level headed person than Fairstein and others involved in the case.
The one who always got me excited to see on screen is Michael Kenneth Williams. One of the most underrated actors I know, especially when it comes to movies, it seems like he never gets a good role to make him justice.
When he played Omar Little in The Wire (2002-2008) he showed how great he is, and in When They See Us he is great again. The only problem is the weird wig he is wearing in the early episodes.
To me, Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise is the heart and soul of the series. The level of emotional manipulation he did to me is absurd, the stronger part is when he is told about his sister’s death.
The last episode is a punch in the stomach, it has everything and even writing about it right now brings strong emotions. The mastery of this episode is thanks to Jerome’s acting and the mind of Ava DuVernay.
Talking about mastery, this series to me was a masterpiece, one of the best I’ve seen and much of it thanks to the dedication of Ava DuVernay, who wrote and directed all the episodes. 10 Moons.
After all of this, the most important thing to say is to praise the five boys, now grown men, who lost most of their youth because people like Linda Fairstein and Donald Trump considered them less human and undeserving of a fair trial.
Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson and Anton McCray.
Their story, their efforts, and their tenacity should be enough to stop more injustices like this of happening, unfortunately, we knew that it will not, but we must be aware and vigilant of it.