When They See Us: The Real Story of the Central Park Five

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

With more than 23 million views in the first month of release and 16 Emmy awards nominations, When they see us is the new sensation on Netflix. Through this limited series, Ava DuVernay relates the story of the Central Park Five, a famous case that shook New York City in 1989. It follows the path of four black boys and one Hispanic boy, aged between 14 and 16 years old and wrongly accused of the rape and assault of a jogger. They spent all their youth in jail and only 13 years later the real perpetrator admitted the crime. What’s interesting about this show is how it relates the story through the point of view of the five boys and their families. And how it makes us question how our own system works.

The context

New York in 1989 is touched by the epidemic of a new drug, crack. And by a lot of violence and criminality. The violence and insecurity of Harlem face the prosperity of Wall Street. The police and the media are targeting the black community. But, in reality, most of the victims of violence were black people themselves and the city is already too deep in the racial issues.

The event

WHEN THEY SEE US Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

The TV show begins showing us the life of the five boys – Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana. We see that they are just normal teenagers. “My goal was to humanize boys, and now men, who are widely regarded as criminals,” said Ava DuVernay. 

They didn’t know each other apart from Yusef and Korey who were friends. Unfortunately, they all ended up being at Central Park on the night of April 19, 1989. That evening, more than 30 youngest boys were in the park causing trouble. Later that night Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old woman, was found beaten almost to death and raped. For the police, it was simple: they arrested some of those boys and accused them of the crime. They targeted the four boys and Korey who was accused after he simply escorted his friend to the police station.

The police interrogation

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

It was their first time in a police station and they all had a clean criminal record. The police were determined to make them guilty and thus manipulated their statements. They used violence and manipulation on those five boys that didn’t know anything about the juridical system. Thirty hours of questioning without food and sleep, without the presence of a lawyer or their families. It was some of the hardest scenes to watch: seeing them afraid, loosing and ending up following the police scenario. In the end, because of their fear, they accused each other and followed the police scenario.

The trial 

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

All the accusations were based on the confession tape. Later, the boys retracted their statements, saying that the police officers manipulated them. A DNA test was made and it didn’t connect any of the boys to the rape. The police should have decided to investigate further to know the identity of the person’s DNA but they didn’t. Indeed, the whole country was already accusing them of the crime and the media was really interested in the affair. For example, Donald Trump at that time even paid a page on a magazine promoting death penalty for the Central Park Five. Everybody ignored the presumption of innocence. At the end of the second trial in 1990, they were convicted of rape, assault, robbery, riot and sentenced for from 10 to 15 years in jail.

The life in jail and after

Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

The show makes us feel the emotions of the characters. The episodes 3 and 4 show us their life in jail and after they served their sentence. We can see Korey Wise’s life in prison more specifically in episode 4. Korey Wise went to an adult prison as he was sixteen at that time. Because the case was famous, he was attacked several times by the other inmates and was put in an isolation cell for his own protection. It’s a really hard episode to watch but Ava DuVernay really depicted well the feeling of a 16-year-old boy in an adult prison. How he struggled physically and mentally. Jharrel Jerome, who’s playing Korey, is phenomenal. He is playing Korey both as a teenager and as an adult. For this role, he received a nomination at the Emmy Awards for outstanding lead actor in a limited series or movie.

The true perpetrator and the exoneration


In 2002, Matias Reyes confessed being the true and only perpetrator of the crime. He decided to confess after meeting Korey Wise in prison because he felt guilty about Korey still being in jail for something he did. In light of this revelation, the five boys decided to fill a lawsuit against the city of New York. In 2014, 41 million dollars was given to them to share together by the city. Even if it’s a lot of money, it can never give them back their youth or erase the trauma and the post-traumatic stress several of them still live with.

Today, they are all engaged against miscarriages of justice and share their story to raise awareness. The question now is what is going to happen to all the police officers of the case and to the prosecutor because until now they didn’t pay. A petition is online to claim justice.

Link of the petition here.

Clockwise from top left, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Marquis Rodriguez, Jharrel Jerome, Ethan Herisse, Asante Blackk and Caleel Harris. The New York Times

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Post Author: Roukia Kaambi

20 years old girl from France. I am a law student currently doing a short-term EVS in Thessaloniki.

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