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August 5, 2019 | by  | in Film | [ssba]

When They See Us

When They See Us will leave you provoked, furious, and hopefully socially aware. Created, co-written and directed by the brilliant Ava DuVernay (Selma), she re-enters the foray of telling stories of racial politics, namely that of African American, through the incidents surrounding the infamous Central Park Five. The Netflix miniseries is a harrowing retelling of the five teens who were falsely accused and convicted of rape and murder in New York City’s Central Park in April 1989. The series follows the fateful night in April when the then teens were “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. DuVernay builds on her storytelling from Selma and brings forward the true essence of the Central Park Five. When They See Us puts the spotlight back on the racial, social, and economic issues affecting people of colour. Although a story from 1989, its themes continue to plague African Americans and Hispanics, notwithstanding the current climate of the Trump presidency. In a style that only DuVernay could master, she puts into frame the corruption and wickedness of those people that should rightly be vilified. In her realistic direction, you can see what DuVernay is seeking to tell the audience—the truth.

There is a litter of powerful performances from both the teen and adult actors of the Central Park Five. Standouts include Jharrel Jerome (Moonlight) and supporting players Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring) and an ironic performance from Felicity Huffman (Transamerica).  Ava DuVernay does not hold back in her storytelling with a tense first two episodes, a claustrophobic episode three, right through to its emotional peak in the finale. The cinematography shines particularly in the court scenes as well scenes in the prison cells when the teens have aged to adults. The dark blue filter that the series is shot through adds a gloomy dimension in its storytelling of this bleak tale. The last episode, although a decent closing, is the longest and has some pacing issues, however it ends the miniseries not on a Hollywood’s cliché of “good overcomes evil” but rather a rethinking that “the truth will always come out”. 

One cannot help but to draw parallels between this series and to those Pasifika stories that continue to sour the taste of racial relationships in society. It is hard to not think about the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and its annexation to America; Samoa’s Mau movement, specifically Black Saturday; Fiji’s history of blackbirding and slavery; and, how can we forget—New Zealand’s own Dawn Raids. On a molecular level there are examples we see day-to-day that, although not on the level of the Central Park Five, are still tangible enough to awaken a rage and sadness. 

As a Pasifika person, when I paid close attention to the language used on the five teens during the interrogation scenes, I thought to myself—that could be said to one of us. I am not sure what that says about NZ society, our justice system, and my perception of Pasifika peoples in the first two. It goes without saying that on some level, Pasifika people will be privy to such dehumanising, coercive and disrespectful language, as we have had it directed to us. The series questions if you are content with those ideas. It makes you take an inward look as to how you view the world and how you fit in it. Is it equitable? Is it fair? Is there justice? What should justice look like? DuVernay does amazingly in rendering the stories of the five teens and making sure that in some way it will relate to you, especially if you’re a person of colour.

When They See Us is a masterpiece helmed by Ava DuVernay’s honest and raw directing. She is the true headliner of the series. It is a tough watch and at times disturbing. “It’s no longer about justice,” as the show says. “It’s about politics. And politics is about survival. And there’s nothing fair about survival”. 

Currently showing on Netflix.



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