When You See It

There’s a scene early on in Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” where a group of kids make there way into New York’s Central Park to the tune of “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. I had this reaction of putting my fist in the air. Public Enemy was introduce to me by the heavy metal band Anthrax with their collaboration with PE on “Bring Da Noize.” After having that song on repeat for most of early teens, I dove into their catalog and was instantly hooked. Chuck D’s voice was heavy and deep, their lyrics were politically insightful and viciously poignant — When I heard Flava Flav say “fuck him and John Wayne it was life changing; you just never hear that in the mainstream pop culture landscape — and their beats were frenetic and at times straight dissonant, almost industrial in its tone. DuVernay’s use of this iconic hip-hop song is deliberate but also a lyrical warning. These five KIDS had to fight every power that be, and what follows is a real fight for their lives, and a glimpse into the very real racism, classism and social injustice that plagues people of color and still does to this day.

“When They See Us” is a four part limited-series that transcends the mediums of film and television. The structure is probably closer to television than film, however, in watching the series all in one sitting, I have the feeling that this is a new kind of visual story telling that is unique. Originally when I heard about the product, I assumed it was a more standard feature-length film. When I found out it was a limited-series, I was thrown off but was more intrigued than before. I have to admit I was ignore of the story of the Central Park Five. I new bits and pieces, however, I didn’t know the gritty details of the case or what these five souls had to endure. I really hope more filmmakers use this limited-series structure, as it allows stories like this to really breathe, and gives way to story beats you would never see in a film or in television.

Part 1 introduces us to our five victims, their families and the authorities who’s vile tactics stole the youth of these five kids. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch these grown men yelling and screaming at this kids, convincing them they took part in this atrocious crime. DuVernay puts us right in the face of these kids as they are being verbally abused. We feel their helplessness. We want to come in an save these humans and there’s nothing we can do about it. DuVernay leaves us as powerless as the kids in those interrogation rooms. One of the most cathartic scenes in the movie is Sharonne Salaam rescues her son Yusef before he can sign his confession. Her shaming of the cops is a moment we as an audience needed, and Ava directs the scene beautifully. So much of Part 1 is a mixture of outrageous confusion. I found myself asking me “how is this happening?” How was his allowed? The truth is this is what happens, and having that being revealed in such a visceral way is disheartening but also necessary.

Then Part 2 comes and we get into the trial. The tricky part of a story like this, is that we know these kids are found guilty and are sentenced to correctional facilities. Ava does such a good job of almost giving us amnesia, putting the details of who represents these boys, and the case they are going to make for them. We feel hopeful despite the looming outcome. And then we hear the defense, and again, that feeling of how did these kids end up in prison? It’s that sense of “why” that sticks with us through-out these first two parts. The absurdity of it all borders on satire. Ava doesn’t play it this way, but the sheer madness of the story comes from the sheer madness of the real life story.

Part 3 and part 4 both elevate this story and the format into something truly transcendent. I will not go into the details of these two parts, as the magnitude and weight of the storytelling must be experienced without any preconceived notions. It’s two pieces of filmmaking that take art from passive to active, from optional to necessary. I can tell you with no hesitation these two parts work on their own as a cohesive piece, but are elevated by what came before. There’s so much bittersweet beauty in the ugliness that is portrayed on screen. There are scenes that would never be part of a feature or a regular television series. When it’s all said and done, this is what’s great about Ava’s film/television hybrid, that there is freedom to branch the story out in ways that don’t feel forced or arbitrary. I can’t recommend “When They See Us” more. Please watch this very special piece of filmmaking.

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Anthonioni Scalepini

Anthonioni Scalepini

Aspiring Screenwriter. Writer of all things Cinema. I will write that movie article for you.