Netflix’s When They See Us caught the attention of millions in 2019 and revealed some unwanted truths within America. The show takes place in New York City during the 80s. We see a more gritty New York- a New York within a Donald Trump era, and engulfed in hip-hop culture. The show takes us so far back to where we can see the most surreal specifics of that time—the high top fades, long wooden beads hung around the neck as jewelry, and neon clothing clung upon the backs of New Yorkers as they cascade up and down war-torn-esque streets.
Through this nostalgic lens, we are introduced to the Central Park Five: Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, and Korey Wisely. These five suspects were black youths who found themselves as suspects of a woman’s rape. The police department took them into custody, questioned most of them without their guardians and promised to lie. All of them were wrongfully accused. The characters were played by Asante Blackk, Marquis Rodriquez, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse and Jharell Jerome, lead by director Ava DuVernay.
The talent from the cast evoked past realizations and previously suppressed emotions within the black community. It made everyone realize that the cinematic world has not praised or witnessed strong black leads in a long time. It’s a beautiful thing to know that we have such prolific forerunners in the industry like Ava DuVernay. This film represents black people’s wish to go beyond society’s expectations for us.
The past decade has stood as a time for the resurgence of black art, culture, and beauty. In this time, the industry has been called out for discrimination and lack of representation.
It’s taken years for the entertainment industry to rid itself of racist archetypes of black people. To see talented black men on screen makes me feel indifferent, in between states of anger and happiness. I feel indifferent because, for the longest time, black actors have had to choose between conformity and authenticity. Conformity and authenticity stand as equally painful roads to embark on. Conformity looks like overly white powdery makeup, damaged broken hair from too many relaxers. Authenticity looks like being labeled as angry, being the outcast.
DuVernay’s ability to showcase the raw truth of a community shows the progress the cinematic world has made. She creates spaces for men and women of color to project recollections of their blackness in the most truthful way. She illustrates a painting of a community that finds itself unable to find a medium between conformity and authenticity, a community that finds itself unable to find peace in a country that wages war against them.
When They See Us can give anyone the affirmation that their existence is not simply a pile of compacted dust. They are not just a sack of potential that is subjected to laws that barely protect them.