Emmy Impact Series: ‘When They See Us’

The 2019 Primetime Emmy Awards air on Sunday, September 22. In the weeks leading to the big night, I’m looking at Emmy-nominated programs with an eye on social impact in my inaugural Emmy Impact Series. To kick things off, let’s take a look at Netflix’s ‘When They See Us’ from director Ava DuVernay.

When They See Us (Netflix)

Social Issue: Racial discrimination and abuse of power in the criminal justice system

Selected Nominations: Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special; Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special; Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie; Outstanding Limited Series

“Why are they doing us like this?”

“What other way they ever do us?”

By the end of part one of ‘When They See Us,’ we’ve been through hell and back with five innocent teenage boys — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise. We’ve already seen them beaten by police, lied to, denigrated by prosecutors, and coerced into false confessions against one another. We see them deprived of parental comfort and guidance in the face of bigoted, racist law officers and prosecutors who see these boys as criminals first. These teen boys are accused of crimes that they can hardly fathom. They are denied their rights over and over and over again. By episode’s end, watching four of the five teenage boys stand in a holding cell put the pieces together, it’s the resignation that is most crushing. In one night, we’ve seen their worlds turn upside down — worlds filled with music lessons and dreams of baseball and high school dates — all gone in one night. We’ve watched, in real time, the robbery of youth.

‘When They See Us’ provides viewers a glimpse into the personal impacts of systemic racial abuse in the justice system. The series’ searing realism and refusal to turn away from the ugliest and most tragic grievances faced by makes it a difficult watch, but an essential one. This is not passive viewing, nor is it easy viewing. There is anger to be felt, and pain, too, from seeing this story unfold. But the series is also designed not to be a tale of defeat; by the end of the series, there is hope. There’s a burden of awareness, but also empowerment and a forward focus on change.

Since the premiere of the series in May, Netflix reported over 23 million account views. It has also, more importantly, sparked a national conversation about race, class, and America’s justice system that is as relevant today as it was back in 1989 at the time of story’s events. It is the height of social impact entertainment, masterfully combining a compelling story, empathy for its characters, and clear social messaging.

‘When They See Us’ works effectively due to the its insistence on the five young men as people first, as individuals with rich personal lives, rather than pawns in a larger narrative. It also succeeds due to its careful attention to narrative agency. By allowing the story to be told from a first-person perspective, that we see, feel, and hear the events unfold through the point of view of these five teen boys. Their experiences drive the narrative. It’s an important distinction; this is one of the first times audiences have seen this story told from this unfiltered perspective. In an August 2019 interview with Variety, DuVernay speaks about the importance of perspective, stating, “To tell the story of men who had been accused, convicted, punished, jailed, forgotten, re-entered into society as sexual predators — to finally give them a voice, it had to be all about them . . . The main thing was to make sure it felt like them — ‘Is this you? Is this your experience?'” The authenticity of story is a crucial element to conveying the series’ social message.

The power of this personalized storytelling point of view is perhaps greatest in part four, which focuses on Korey Wise’s long and arduous years in the prison system. Wise (portrayed powerfully by Jharrel Jerome), who, on the night of the 1989 incident, was without a guardian at the police station, sixteen, and unaware of his rights — became a soft target for the police and prosecutors to scapegoat for their case. Unlike the other four boys — who were sent to juvenile facilities — Wise is sent to Rikers, and the prison tries to strip away his dignity and his sanity. We see, firsthand, the cruelty of a criminal justice system for a Black teenager who never had a chance to be viewed as innocent.

In context of his larger prison environment, it’s clear that Wise was very much still young and vulnerable. He was also, despite his circumstances, still hopeful. Sadly, the system chips away at this hope little by little and on all sides. Korey realizes that he cannot get out on parole unless he admits guilt to a crime he did not commit; the system insists on his guilt. Prisoners beat him and guards look in the other direction. Nurses are indifferent to his physical pain. And Korey’s support system outside of the prison complex crumbles. He cannot contact Yusef, his best friend. His mother does not visit often. Korey is forced to take refuge in solitary. By the time Korey breaks at the news of his sister Marci’s death, we feel completely that the system has failed him. We feel he has been forgotten and abandoned. This abuse continues in yet another complex when Korey requests a transfer, and we, along with him, realize that this is a cycle with no intent to be broken. The fact that Korey’s eventual release from the system depended on a chance encounter and a moment-of-conscience confession from the real perpetrator, Matias Reyes, over a decade later is horrific. It is not only delayed justice — if it can even be called that — it is a twisted lottery play that shows that for Black and Brown people in this country, the odds are not in their favor to be treated fairly by the system.

In the United States, we ask young people of color, especially Black and Latino youth, to accept at an early age that society does not see their innocence. We ask them to be advocates for themselves because we expect that the system is not intended to protect them. We shouldn’t force that burden on children. Or any person of color no matter what their age, for that matter. Abuses of power and racial discrimination in the justice system continue today, and there are countless others who have suffered and continue to suffer in the system who may never see the justice they deserve. The series asserts that this must change. It has the potential to use its awareness and empathy for its subjects to drive real-life action towards criminal justice reform.

And therein lies the hope. Hope for change. It’s a hopeful note that the series ends on. We see each of the five — now the Exonerated Five — as adults, their lives starting to be set back in motion after years of tragedy. Hand in hand, they are triumphant. Theirs is a story of change. Hopefully, society can change towards a future of equity in justice, too.

When They See Us is streaming now on Netflix.