When They See Us
“The unsparing nature of When They See Us has sparked conversations about whether it’s another in a long line of works that rehash Black trauma.”
Title: When They See Us
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1 (TV Mini-Series)
Creator: Ava DuVernay 👩🏾🇺🇸
Writer: Ava DuVernay 👩🏾🇺🇸
Reviewed by Dana 👩🏼🇺🇸
In her special presentation of When They See Us, Oprah gathers the cast and crew before her and remarks, “The world knew them as just a derogatory headline for decades.” Now, she declares, “we call them the Exonerated Five.”
Despite being exonerated in 2002, the five’s stories—the stories of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise—remained obscured. With the release of When They See Us, Ava DuVernay hands those stories back to the five men whose names and identities were, for so long, flattened by the moniker of “the Central Park Five.” Within the opening moments of the series, DuVernay introduces us to Antron (Caleel Harris), a die-hard Yankees fan, and to Kevin (Asante Blackk), who plays the trumpet and has his eye on first chair. Korey (Jharrel Jerome) always seems to be hungry, Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez) checks his reflection in a car window, and Yusef (Ethan Herisse), sporting an epic hi-top fade, makes plans for Saturday that he doesn’t yet realize he’ll never keep.
We’re also introduced to the term “wilding”—not from the lips of a white cop who doesn’t know what it means, but from Ray who jogs after a group of boys headed to Central Park, saying, “They’re probably just wilding out.” It’s not yet the term that the media will use as shorthand to ascribe racist motives to five boys they describe as animals, but a possibility to let loose.
These crucial perspectives are brought to life by DuVernay’s stunning technical work. As a master of light and focus, she makes deliberate, artful choices that infuse every moment with unspoken intent. Where many directors would rely on heavy shadows to emphasize despair and gravity, she shines light—both literally and figuratively—on her subjects. Close shots allow the actors to express painstaking nuance, while wide ones offer a sense of place and time. As the boys run through Central Park, the tungsten lights from the lampposts flare and bathe the actors in warm glows, familiar and innocent. Sitting in a police station as he’s coerced and terrorized into a confession, Kevin licks at his top lip, trying to stem the flow of tears down his face. Every choice DuVernay makes, from start to finish, is deliberate and driven by her desire to tell this story of the Exonerated Five.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
It would have been easy, and not totally unfair, to reduce prosecutors Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga) and Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) to simple villains. After all, Fairstein does demonstrate the ugly mindset that would come to characterize the whole case as she tells her officers to bring back every “thug” in Harlem for questioning. Yet when she makes an impassioned plea for her colleagues to take the case seriously, citing the hundreds of cases of assault in the previous year in what she rightly calls an “epidemic,” audiences understand that her hunt for the perpetrator comes from a genuine drive for justice.
This complexity extends to the more sympathetic women of the series, too. Interactions between the mothers of Yusef, Antron, Kevin, and Korey sizzle with nervous conflict, as each woman struggles to do what’s best for her son while remaining wary of how others might threaten that. As Korey’s mother Dolores, actor Niecey Nash shines in Part Four of the series as her son serves his prison sentence. Nash delivers the full spectrum of pain as it manifests over time—not only pain at seeing her son behind bars, but pain as she struggles with her own shortcomings. No pall of judgment overshadows her; rather, her story offers a glimpse at the widespread toxicity of an unjust system.
By and large, despite being a story heavily centered on five young men—as it ought to be—DuVernay portrays the women in their orbit as complex and substantive. It’s not a consideration we’re used to seeing in male-centric stories, and it puts even more weight behind the emotional punches.
The Central Park Jogger case was fundamentally about race: A white woman attacked, a city outraged, and their anger turned without reservation toward five boys of color. Part Two weaves together a tapestry of unforgivably skewed coverage, narrated by familiar voices still active in media today. Some use dog whistles, describing the boys in primitivist terms like “thugs.” Others eagerly exploit the narrative in overtly racial terms, describing Harlem as a dystopian wasteland where boys roam wild, hunting in Central Park for white victims. DuVernay reminds us, explicitly, of how potent media narratives can be.
The unsparing nature of When They See Us has sparked conversations about whether it’s another in a long line of works that rehash Black trauma without real consideration for the community it depicts. After all, media has often capitalized on Black pain without doing anything to confront inequality. Films like Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit (2017) or Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004) remain notorious examples of good intentions that still center white desires for easy reconciliation or worse, a fascination for Black trauma. But When They See Us is not entertainment: It’s a demand for a desperately needed conversation.
“I have never seen a movie/series do a better job of capturing the essence of being a young Black man in this country,” says Kyle Bibby, co-founder of the Black Veterans Project. “It left absolutely no stone unturned. Our broken justice system. Parenting. Poverty. Transgender rights. The politics of anti-Blackness. Trump. It had everything.”
For their part, the Exonerated Five seem to feel that their story has the potential to be a catalyst. “This needs to be watched,” Kevin—the real Kevin Richardson—tells Oprah. “We need to make sure things change now.”
Amid the ongoing crisis of violence against Black trans women, DuVernay makes a point to include Korey’s trans sibling in his story. Korey refers to them as his brother, although he switches back and forth between their given name, Norman, and their chosen name, Marci (Isis King).
Marci first appears to Korey in a flashback, as he languishes in solitary confinement and finds refuge in a memory of them discussing Korey’s future. When the scene returns to the grim present, Korey learns the heartbreaking news that Marci has been murdered. Journeying to another memory, we see Korey’s mother throw Marci—whom she adamantly refers to as Norman—out of the house as Korey looks on, pointedly using their chosen name
Overall, Marci remains a minor character and the series doesn’t offer a new or especially positive view of the queer community. But thanks to authentic casting—King herself identifies as transgender—it’s another example of DuVernay’s commitment to elevating underrepresented voices.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.25/5
DuVernay has an exceptional ability to seek out and bring to life the forgotten, and When They See Us could not have been told as poignantly by anyone else. It’s painful, enraging, and profoundly necessary, because what was done to Antron, Kevin, Yusef, Raymond, and Korey cannot be undone. No amount of money or apologies coming decades too late can return to them the time they lost, nor the pain they endured. But When They See Us does give them back one thing: ownership of their own stories. In the final moments of the series, their names are highlighted as the faces of the five–now men–come into focus.
DuVernay has said before that she doesn’t care about awards, but When They See Us deserves them. On technical and artistic merits, it’s near perfection and ought to be acknowledged for that alone. But the series goes far beyond that. It would make a powerful statement that the content of what we see, and the intent behind it, matters. Even when it’s hard to watch.