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The impact of Ava DuVernay's storytelling in "When They See Us"


Ava DuVernay on the set of "When They See Us" with Jharrel Jerome, who played Korey Wise.

When it comes to bringing true stories to the screen, it’s important for the truth to be told, especially when it deals with sensitive content. Netflix recently released the Ava DuVernay directed series based off the exonerated men who were known in the media as the, “Central Park 5.” The four part series, When They See Us chronicles Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Yusef Salaam from being wrongfully convicted as young teenagers for the rape of a jogger in Central Park to going into adulthood. DuVernay’s superb directing was shown in the amazing visuals and allowed for the truth and emotions to resonate to viewers. Each episode is different in its way with the storytelling. The first episode starts off with the 5 teens being coerced into false confessions and then the second part shows the trial in which the boys were shown to be victims of the broken system. The first two parts then tie together into the third and fourth episode, showing the 5 boys, now men trying to survive adulthood in prison and in society.

The first episode begins with the lives of the boys the day the assault of the jogger occurred. DuVernay did an amazing job at visually showing the 5 boys as normal teens who didn’t know each other but ended up at Central Park. This episode pulled me in as a viewer who didn’t know much about the real case, but I was also left no words after I had finished. Not only did this episode showed the boys as just being teenagers, but it showed how the police coerced them and pinned them as rapists. Watching the police do that was emotionally hard to watch because of how real it felt. This was because of the performances of the actors, Asante Blackk (Kevin Richardson), Caleel Harris (Antron McCray), Ethan Herisse (Yusef Salaam), Marquis Rodriguez (Raymond Santana) and Jharrel Jerome (Korey Wise). Their strong performances are carried into the second episode which shows their trial.

Although the trial shown in the second episode of this four part series felt rushed since two trials were squeezed into a one hour and eleven minute episode, it ended off so strong. It truly showed how the system failed them with their confession tapes being edited and the evidence which showed that they were nowhere near the jogger. Also, the families of the boys further showed that these young teens were just boys and not criminals. The ending scene of Richardson (Asante Blackk) playing the trumpet was one of the most memorable and emotional scenes for me. This episode overall was an emotional rollercoaster and made the series harder to watch. It was especially difficult to watch in the third part when four out of the five boys are growing up in the system and going back out into society as young men.

The third episode showed Raymond (Freddy Miyares), Antron (Jovan Adepo), Yusef (Chris Chalk), Kevin (Justin Cunningham) life in prison and going out into society as felons. This episode showed the reality of life when someone gets out of prison and how difficult it was for the 4 men to adjust. The pacing was a bit of a problem because the 4 lives were put into one part of the series, but it is understandable if DuVernay only had the chance to tell the story of the exonerated men in 4 parts. It was easier to watch this episode than the last two, but DuVernay still carried her strong directing into this episode. The performances of the actors playing the 4 men were great and they were able to convey the emotions that come with the truth of being known as the “Central Park 5.”

The fourth and last episode of this four part series ended off with a strong message and Jharrel Jerome did a phenomenal job playing Korey Wise as he was shown to have suffered the most out of the 5 teens. Only being 16 at the time and forced into an adult prison because of his age, so many layers were shown. It was exciting to see Jerome play a strong character especially having seen him as a supporting character in Oscar winning film, Moonlight (2016). This episode showed so much of his life and struggles, and it is upsetting to see someone who didn’t deserve to be thrown into that situation to go through that.

Not only did the main actors perform well in this mini series, but the supporting actors also did well. Specifically, Felicity Huffman portrayed Linda Fairstein well and she was the right person to portray someone who clearly went after 5 young boys with no evidence. This mini series successfully portrayed the story of these 5 men who were wronged by the broken system and Ava DuVernay was the right person to direct and write this show. She showed the truth visually and made an impact on me. Looking on social media after Netflix released it, this series has also garnered a lot of impact on other people and hopefully it will continue to do so in the next couple of weeks.