Thursday, June 20, 2019

Five Who Came Home Years After The World Moved On

A scene from the epic Nexflix film "When They See Us", directed by Ava DuVernay
. Netflix


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, June 20, 2019

A brooding, claustrophic New York penetrates the heart of the epically heartbreaking "When They See Us", Ava DuVernay's powerful choronicle of five innocent young Black and Latino teenagers convicted of an April 1989 attack on a white female jogger in Central Park that they didn't commit.  Ms. DuVernay's five-hour film is an exclusive Netflix limited series, which will play to even more shocking effect on the big screen should Netflix decide to put it in cinemas for awards season at year's end.

"When They See Us" unfolds as the real-life nightmarish institutional desecration of innocence it is.  Hellish and harrowing, the film introduces us to five Black and Latino boys whose everyday human existence and happiness is shattered.  A large New York park lauded as a beautific Big Apple landmark becomes a cavernous nocturnal cauldron of terror and violations viscerally depicted in unblinking fashion.  After the chaos of a bloody night the unbeknownst Korey Wise (played brilliantly by Jharrel Jerome) only wants to accompany his friend Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse) to the police station while he's questioned because,4 after all, that's what best pals do, right?  "My moms will kill me if I don't," Korey says to a calculating New York City police detective in one fateful moment.

Innocence is a casualty when you are Black, and guilt is the presumption.  In an American backdrop of 2019, where a sizable number of white people across the U.S. call the police on Black people for no reason but to see Black people punished or killed, the young Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk) of 1989 happens to be in Central Park on a spring night to breathe, live and be the fun-loving boy he is.  Within minutes an evil thunderbolt shatters the warm nightsky: a police officer chases Kevin and inflicts the first of many deep scars his budding adolescence will bear. 

Most painful of all, Antron McCray (Caleel Harris) is told by his father (Michael K. Williams)--who thinks he's helping his son--to lie his way out of trouble and tragically into jail.  Their father-son relationship is as tangled as the close relationship is loving between Raymond Santana (John Leguizamo) and his son (Marquis Rodriguez).  The families and their sons are given a humanity and genuineness by Ms. DuVernay that no one else has on film.  The five boys also grow up on camera and all but one are played by different actors as they navigate the penal system that kneecaps them for failure before they even enter.

The system convicted the boys and their families in two ways: the boys for their Blackness and the parents for their naivety.  This sad, crude truth permeates "When They See Us", its unscrupulous chief antagonist Manhattan District Attorney Sex Crime Unit head Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) as an architect of modern-day enslavement disrupter of families.  In one heroic scene, Sharonne Salaam (Aunjanue Ellis) interrupts an interrogation of her son, much to the chagrin of Ms. Fairstein, who these days offscreen is getting the appropriate corrective measures to her infamous handling of this Scottboro-type injustice.

Everyone in "When They See Us" isn't black and white.  Some of the boys' defense attorneys have interests that don't necessarily reside with their clients.  People in the prosecutors office who question the efficacy of Ms. Fairstein's very weak case against boys whom the world is convinced are rapists.  Linda Fairstein's relentless missive and assault (in real-life and onscreen) against the five young boys caught up in Central Park is the systemic equivalent of gunman Bernhard Goetz's proclamation against the Black youths he shot on a New York City subway train only a few years earlier: "I wanted to kill those guys.  I wanted to maim those guys.  I wanted to make them suffer in every way I could."  This Goetz quote is Fairstein's own bigoted national anthem, and she lives by every word of it in her drive to destroy innocent teenagers.

"When They See Us" is a compelling articulation about systemic racism and the violence it wreaks on a psychological and institutional basis.  The American criminal justice system is accurately captured as the monsters or wolfpack it is intended to be (the police, press and prosecutors), as inveighed against Black and Brown males.  Then come the monsters the system makes behind prison bars.  One extremely difficult and disturbing part of Ms. DuVernay's film is the brutalization of Mr. Wise as he is processed through one prison after another wading through another more dangerous circle of Hell.  This chapter of the film is a singular separate horror movie that makes Mr. Wise's journey stand apart from his fellow survivors.

One of the many effective aspects of "When They See Us" is the inside-outing of America's media-hallowed mythology of "good" police.  Long-celebrated in U.S. television as straight arrow can't-do-wrongs, from Joe Friday to Baretta to James Rockford to Steve McGarrett to the cadre of "Law And Order" detectives, the police in Ms. DuVernay's film are shown in ways more honest and true to 2019 (and forever prior to that time) as violent, opportunistic, law-breaking racist yahoos whose goal is to break the will of Black and Latino teenage boys over a 48-hour, no-food, sleep or bathroom break period.  A moment in front of an American flag for twisted malevolent cop Mike Sheehan (William Sadler), who in actuality made a career in the New York television news media off his illegalities, crystalizes the film's title, the police (and by extension the society's) attitude to Black and Latino male (and female) youth.

"When They See Us" is a forensic roller-coaster ride of family, faith, fantasy, friction, with New York society, rich, poor and indifferent as a media-influenced Dante's Inferno.  Ms. DuVernay captures a criminal justice system that operated far worse, insidious and heinous than the brutal crime Matias Reyes committed against Patricia Meili thirty years ago, to reveal a larger systemic terror crime: punishing the innocent despite exculpatory DNA evidence.  Each story here is rendered so palpably and with such range so as to be an aching heartbeat of an American life that all too many Black and Brown people still experience.

Ms. DuVernay's film is a matter-of-fact dramatization of the events of April 19, 1989 (including the vicious attack on Ms. Meili) and the relentless institutional attacks on boys who only want to live life.  Part of these boys' lives was killed off forever thirty years ago.  Donald Trump, reintroduced here as a perverse monster of menace and malice as a media-beloved real estate mogul, served as judge, jury and excecutioner in chief then with his $85,000 published May 1989 newspaper ads of racist pronouncements of guilt on the five innocent boys.  He has since extrapolated that psychopathy, hate, dishonesty and cruelty to the entire country.

For all the enduring horror and callousness of its systemic punishers there is fractious though loving support from family who do the time with their loved ones (an excellent Niecy Nash as the mother of Korey Wise), and the final frames of "When They See Us" accompanied by Frank Ocean's masterful, melancholic and ironic rendition of "Moon River", will bring smiles and tears.  The lingering of Mr. Wise's name on screen -- and certainly not by accident -- is just one never-forget moment of an unforgettable five hours of essential, superb filmmaking.

With: Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk, Justin Cunningham, Freddy Miyares, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Kylie Bunbury, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson.

"When They See Us" is rated TV-MA.  It contains disturbing violent content, sexuality, blunt and coarse language.  It is exclusively on Netflix.  The film running time is four hours and 54 minutes.

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