As a father of four young African American males, I live in constant fear for my children. I am terrified at the thought that at any time, any one of my “babies” (actually young men, all above age 18) may someday fall victim to what is widely considered a corrupt justice system, seemingly designed to accuse, judge and execute without impartiality. As a viewer of the biography and long-distance spectator of the real occurrence back when it happened, I empathize because many of my peers and I have been there, in some way, shape or form…
…but certainly not to that extreme.
That’s what I’d like to talk about today. So let’s have a brief chat about-
“When They See Us” (Pt. 2 of 2): Now That You’ve Seen It
[Warning: The following is a full review of the movie which includes spoilers and is intended for viewers who have already seen this. If you have NOT, please read “When They See Us” (Pt. 1 of 2): Why You MUST See It”, which is a breakdown of why you should watch it with NO spoilers.]
I’ll begin with this – I can’t remember being this angry about a movie in a LONG time and for numerous reasons. So first of all, kudos to director Ava DuVernay for expertly segregating the tale of “The Central Park 5”, giving us breaks and time to process each carefully constructed facet of this magnificent project: Through her vision, we experienced the full gravity of every situation. Bless you, Ava!
Part One – This chapter sets the stage, leading viewers in with great interest, while scaring/angering a few to the point where they couldn’t continue. So much to discuss. The decisions of these young men to join the dozens of teenagers for a night of “wildin’ out” in Central Park. The actions of those who actually chose to harass and terrorize the innocent. The police raid and excessive use of force during the apprehension of just about anyone in sight. The deception used to ensnare Yusef Salaam’s friend, Korey Wise (looking back, one of the series’ single most infuriating moments, in my opinion). The “bad cop / good cop” methods used to confuse and manipulate the so-called suspects, leading to their forced and falsified confessions. And let’s not forget that neither their parents/guardians were present, nor was there an opportunity for legal representation. The deprivation of food, rest, support or breaks from the continuous onslaught of questioning and multiple accusations. The illegal and immoral physical and emotional assault on the 5 innocent (who I will henceforth refer to as the “CP5”), confused and panicked youth. The deviation from the standard “random selection of a judge” to preside over the trial protocol. Even the exploitation of Kevin Richardson’s noticeable injury, sustained by the blunt force the helmet of an abusive arresting officer (this played a vital role in the supposition that he was one the assailants that the rape victim desperately fought during her attack).
I think one of the sadder takeaways from this episode is that the police department resorted to pitting these teenagers against each other, in hopes of compensating for the lack of substantive evidence and conflicting accounts. I felt indescribable sorrow for them when they met for the first time, in holding, only to discover that the “strangers” they lied on were each pawns in the same game.
The confession that had me shaking my head in disgust was that of the most sympathetic character, Korey: “I felt bad. I felt bad. This is my… This is my first extreme I did to any… any kind of female…. or… (sighs) This is my first rape. This is my first experience, this will be my last.”
And exactly what was the reward for his admission of guilt (assuming it would be used to incriminate the strangers who he thought were actually involved)? After giving his statement, he stood up, believing he would be released, only to be told to sit back down, before his eventual transfer to a holding pen with adults at Rikers Island, being the only teen at age 16.
Part Two – Not surprisingly, beginning with the media frenzy that misinformed shocked Americans, already with limited access to news (pre-internet and social media era). I was living in Tallahassee, Florida at the time and not a great deal was covered in the nightly news and newspapers. In general, we were led to believe that 5 black teenagers assaulted and brutally raped an innocent white female, jogging in Central Park. Yeah, the media accomplished what it intended to do, vilify the infamous CP5. Compound that with the on-air comments of Donald Trump (ever heard of that guy?), suggesting that they be given the death penalty for their alleged actions via full-page ads in New York newspapers.
The court cases separated our country by age, socioeconomic status and other categories, most notably, race. The treachery of the police department and prosecution team seemed to know no bounds as they strategically used the splitting of the trial into separate cases, so as to successfully enter the reconstructed audio/video confessions for consideration. I’d already felt a sense of impossibility, watching the unheard cries of the supporting churches and local community, as well as the introduction of a legal defense team, individually selected by the families (which included one member with experience only as a divorce attorney). The trial, although abbreviated for time, exhibited the vicious and calculating tactics used by the prosecutorial team; leading the testimonies of the defendants while incorporating the sympathetic appearance and statements of the victims. I particularly felt the “all is lost” twinge when Antron McRay’s father took the stand and fumbled his way against Prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer, after already having been absent throughout the proceedings.
Like most historical dramas, I sat with baited breath, hoping the CP5 would collectively be found Not Guilty, even though I knew the outcome. Kind of like the ttempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler in the 2008 film “Valkyrie” with Tom Cruise. You want a different outcome, but no such luck.
Memorable moment from Episode 2: The looks on the faces of the CP5 as they individually rose to hear the verdict. The dread of knowing that the next few seconds could negatively affect their lives forever. This, followed by the looks of anguish and horror on theirs and their family’s faces…
…end episode – fade to credits.
Part Three – A combination of the experiences of each of 4 of the CP5 (minus Korey, who was tried and convicted as an adult), the lives of their families and their treatment after being released from prison. Each saw freedom before they were exonerated for their crimes, so for a time, they endured mistrust, hatred and the legal ramifications of the verdict (having to register as sex offenders). From Ray Jr.’s unwelcome homecoming with his father’s new wife and family to Yussef learning that his status would now prohibit him from working in various capacities, being a convicted felon. It was conveyed to them that although many people in the neighborhood still believed in their innocence, in the hateful eyes of much of the nation, they didn’t deserve their freedom OR fair treatment. I’m sure you can recall that there were moments when two were insultingly referred to as “rapists” (Ray Jr. by his father’s wife; Antron by his co-worker turned girlfriend).
If any scene from this episode tugged at my heartstrings, it was the conversation between Kevin and his mother, who encouraged that he was not alone and to stay strong. I was managing through her speech until the scene transitioned to a shot of Kevin’s back as he walked out of the prison gates, noticeably older. The realization that, although free, he had been robbed of his youth was both troubling and depressing for me. Everyone has their “breakdown moment” of the series. That was mine. I especially felt saddened, knowing that he never truly reconciled with his abandoning father (who’s health had failed and was forced to move back in with an embittered Kevin and his forgiving mother). Even his (the real life Kevin) anger, displayed during the Oprah interview, was hard to digest, as you could tell by the audience reaction as he spoke.
Part Four – Dear God. How can anyone POSSIBLY understand what Korey Wise went through from the moment he chose to ride to the police station to be a supporting force for his friend Yussef? That was a tragedy in itself, knowing that Yussef’s mother picked him up and took him home, unbeknownst to Korey, now all alone. Between the newly-revealed story of what all transpired in his world and real-life actor Joshua Jackson’s performance, I was emotionally spent. I sat through the episode throwing my hands up, shaking and tilting my head back with frustrated exhalation, groaning and silently weeping as I watched him suffer through the ironic consequences of “being a friend”. I think it’s safer to just bulletize the high points (or more appropriately, “LOW” points) of his experience AND Jackson’s memorable performance:
- His puff-lipped, bewildered expressions during interrogation and in the courtroom.
- His face as he left the police station, looking at Yussef, already handcuffed and in his own separate police car.
- The delivery of his ludicrously staged video confession.
- His shame and discomfort in admitting that he was near-illiterate in the courtroom during his trial.
- His outburst after the jury’s conviction, screaming “you lied on me” to the prosecutorial team.
- His first moments in jail, seeing a rat on his bed, knowing he was clearly out of his element and away from the security and comforts of home.
- His cowering to the wall in fear as a fight ensued in the prison cafeteria.
- Even how he sat, with timidly slumped shoulders as he ate, wedged between two prisoners, plucking his food into his mouth like an innocent child.
Oh my God, I could go on and on and on…
- His savage beating (and hinted rape), early during his stay at the prison.
- His mother’s infrequent and diminishing visits as each prison transfer resulted in increased distance from his home.
- His emotional turmoil, dealing with the tension between his mother and his brother “Marci’s” sexuality. And the news of Marci’s subsequent passing which led to his outburst into the arms of Officer Roberts in the Chaplain’s office. Note: Thank God for Roberts, who afforded him fair treatment and gave him a job to break the potential insanity of isolation in solitary.
- Having to deal with corrupt correctional officers in the different prisons, as well as the additional beating from white supremacists. Not to mention the ones that weren’t shown or mentioned.
- His eventual decision to refuse an audience with the parole board as he maintained his innocence (which guaranteed his continued stay). “Tell ’em I’m maxing out. If they don’t wanna hear my truth, I don’t want to waste my energy.”
- His suffering through the days of the defective cooling system and his jubilation when it was restored. I’m sure we ALL could feel that air blowing and rejoiced WITH him and the other inmates.
- His reflections on the moments that led to his arrest and incarceration (choosing to leave his girlfriend’s side to join the teenagers in the park, going with Yussef to the police station, his bogus confession, etc.). Note: His prison wall image-finding, imaginary basketball game and hallucinations of his brother, his girlfriend and his mother were directorial masterpieces. Particularly his joyful trip to the park with his girlfriend and his reconciliation with his mother.
I need to stop. Suffice it to say that Korey went through hell and Joshua’s performance did him sincere justice.
I wish I could pick a favorite line from that episode, but in truth, it was his general forgiveness of Matias Reyes after being confronted in the prison yard. There’s hope for this cruel world yet.
I tried to find happiness and relief in the final moments, knowing they had been finally freed, with all charges dropped and purged from their records, but all I felt was bitterness and animosity. It was the same frustration I experienced while watching the Martin Lawrence / Eddie Murphy movie “Life” when Claude and Ray finally escaped prison as old men, having the majority of their lives and freedom stripped from them. It was bittersweet and definitely not worth celebrating.
On a more personal note, I wept softly and silently as “Moon River” played at the oncoming of the closing credits. That’s the song I played with my cousin and musical role model, John on stage back in 1983. It was the only time I ever performed with him and the genius that defined him. I lost him a year ago and hearing that song again, well, it reminded me that that time, THOSE times with him are gone, just memories. Like the childhood of the Central Park Exonerated 5, although very different in experience, these are times I can never reclaim. So yeah, even the final fleeting moments left me hurting.
I can’t give enough praise for the direction, cinematography and each of their individual exemplary performances, along with the star-studded cast selection. And a well-deserved round of applause goes out to Jharrel Jerome in his role as both young and mature versions of Korey. Hands down, one of the greatest performances I have EVER seen. He stole my heart from the beginning with a myriad of convincing expressions. To be honest, I didn’t even realize that it was Jerome playing both ages until the Oprah interview.
At the time of this article, it’s recently been announced that Jharrel has been nominated for an Emmy award in the category of Outstanding Lead Actor. Best of luck Jharrel! Additional best wishes and luck to the cast and crew for the OTHER 15 nominations.
Two references (or phrases) of note, in my opinion, truly summarize the entire real-life ordeal, the brilliant biography, our feelings and the painful reality revolving around our nation’s illnesses:
- The final exchange in the police precinct in Episode 1:
Kevin: Why are they doing us like this?
Ray: What other way they ever do us?
- During the post-movie interview (the Oprah special), cast member Joshua Jackson, playing the role of expert Defense Attorney Mickey Joseph, offered this thought: “…but what did I learn about the justice system, is that it’s the wrong name for it.”
Amen, Joshua. Speak on it.
Closing Comments: As I mentioned in this post’s opening, I have been assaulted and harassed by police before, as have several my friends. I’ve even been taken down to the police station a few times. Trust me when I say it’s never a good situation. One of my friends was even forced to disrobe and bend over to prove that he had not taken and hidden stolen money in his butt cleavage or behind his scrotum, while still IN the establishment at which he was falsely accused (story for another day). I’ve shared these and many other stories from my father with my children and their friends over the years, in hopes that I/we serve as a warning – a cautionary tale, by which they hopefully will have learned how to avoid situations and more important, what their rights are and how to respond to the authorities (beginning with calling their parents FIRST). Having a conversation with your children to avoid certain activity and individuals is a staple in any household. But what saddens me the most is that in this day and age, the LAST thing I should have to do is equip them for confrontations with the very agency I was taught to trust as a child: Law Enforcement.
On “When They See Us”: Looking back on what I saw vs what I commented, I’m convinced that each episode (and the post-movie interview special) deserves their own full-length blog posts. But I couldn’t risk losing you over time with each entry. My wish is that I successfully covered my thoughts without overwhelming you with content. I equally pray I haven’t cheapened or diluted the intended impact in my attempts to keep it brief (which it really wasn’t). There was just so much to say and I feel that someday I may regret not sharing it all.
But then again, knowing you watched it, I believe you already know every one of my unspoken words.
God bless the Exonerated 5, God bless you all.
Be safe and please, live above reproach.
Two articles of note. If you’re mentally exhausted like I am, bookmark them for later:
Click on the following for an interesting article on why director Ava DuVerney elected (pun intended) NOT to cast a Donald Trump character.
Here is an article I found that sheds even more light on former New York Prosecutor Linda Fairstein. The story of what happened to a 1977 rape victim. Click here on “Linda Fairstein Apologizes. But Not For The Central Park 5 Case”.
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