“I want you to know their names, and I want you to see them”
“I wasn’t interested in assigning a name that was given to these men by the state,” said DuVernay to Judnick Mayard in an interview for GQ. “These men” are Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana Jr, Kevin Richardson and Yusef Salaam.
In April of 1989 they were teenage boys living in Harlem, when they joined a larger crowd of young men moving through Central Park. That same night, Trisha Meile was jogging through the park when she was assaulted, raped, and left for dead.
These five boys were picked up by the police, who then interrogated them endlessly, coerced jumbled and senseless confessions from them, and were ultimately placed on trial for the crime.
Despite the fact that the timeline for the assault did not match the timeline of the boys’ movements through the park, that the details of the boys’ confused statements bore no resemblance to the details of the crime scene, and the fact that there was absolutely no DNA evidence linking them to the crime, they were found guilty, and each spent between six and 13 years in prison.
To quote Mayard’s interview again, “When They See Us makes for the kind of viewing experience that some would call ’emotionally gripping’ and others (read: black and brown people) may find triggering, as it mirrors persistent and deep-seated personal fears.”
The harrowing four-part miniseries details the lives of the five boys moving forward from that night, and how their trial and conviction robbed them not only of their youth, but of their future.
It takes a long, heartbreaking look at the parents who love them, did their best for them, and know that they’re good. It looks at how the criminal justice system seems so obsessed with the illusion of restitution to white victims, that almost any black body will do: as long as there is a brown boy being flung into jail, justice must have been served.
The Central Park Five are now all in their mid-forties, and the events that changed their lives forever are 30 years behind them. The conversation around youth crime is changing, but probably far too slowly.
Young, unarmed black men are still at high risk of being murdered by police officers. Riker’s Island, where Wise, the oldest of the group was sent, is planned for closure within the next decade, but the US still has a mass incarceration problem.
Donald Trump, who called for the death penalty for these five boys in 1989, is now President.
The Central Park Five had their convictions overturned in 2001 when Matias Reyes confessed to the crime. They were ultimately awarded millions of dollars in damages, and live as free men today.
Still, as Wise said in a previous documentary (The Central Park Five, 2012), “You won’t forget what you lost. No money could bring that time back. No money could bring the life that was missing or the time that was taken away.”