My Reaction to "When They See Us"

Netflix’s “When They See Us” portrays the Central Park Five, five boys of color who were incarcerated as teens for the rape of a White woman and ultimately exonerated. Ava Duvernay did her thing from the director’s chair and the actors were phenomenal in bringing an already-compelling story to life. I cannot recall the last time that a piece of media has stuck with me in the same way. As an African-American male who speaks against intimate violence, I found it to be truly powerful. 

Watching “When They See Us” was basically like watching a newscast for me because I was nine years old when the Central Park Five stood trial. I had very little firsthand recollection of their story and the movie got me interested in learning more. I went on to watch some of the video interviews of involved parties released to the public and even read city prosecutor Linda Fairstein’s rebuttal of the film series in the Wall Street Journal where she called “When They See Us” an outright fabrication. It occurs to me that this is probably the most information that the public will ever have concerning an alleged sex crime short of video of the alleged act itself. Most of the time we will only have speculation and after-the-fact testimonies. So, if an account with this much information can be so polarizing, then it’s probably just the case that accusations of rape will always divide.

Most of all, “When They See Us” was a forceful reminder that I speak against violence from a body that is viewed as the problem. The Black male body – my body – is demonized and feared. In “Women, Race & Class”, Angela Davis talks about what she calls the myth of the Black racist. She speaks to how the “cry of rape emerged as a major justification for lynching” and lingered as a tool to rally White support for the terrorizing and disenfranchising of African-Americans. Davis writes almost a full decade before the Central Park Five stood trial, which validated her contention that the myth of the Black rapist was resurrected in a major way in the 1970’s.

Hostility towards Black manhood certainly played a part in mobilizing a police department, a criminal justice system, and media outlets to lock up five youths on spotty evidence. What I’ve always found amazing about the myth of the Black rapist is its ability to motivate entire communities to speak against a crime towards which America has historically been indifferent. Most people go through their day without thinking about rape, much less speaking out against it or taking out ads in the paper about it. The Central Park jogger case took place in 1989, which I don’t consider to be ancient history. We would be naïve to think that the power of the myth of the Black rapist has been extinguished in a couple of decades.

That America fears Black manhood is a critical lesson for Black boys coming of age as there are several studies demonstrating that both Black boys and girls are often viewed as less innocent, more culpable, and just plain older than their White counterparts. This is a shame as youth have a tendency to be impulsive, impressionable, near-sighted, and desirous of approval. In short, youth tend to be….well, young. They are still seeking who they are to be. I’m not saying that we should excuse the actions of youth that harm others but God forbid that we should all be judged harshly based on our capabilities as teenagers

I’ve met some truly remarkable teenagers whose self-assurance and maturity has belied their age but I don’t count myself among them. I look back on my formative years and recall moments where I am fortunate that those around me understood my youthful mistakes for what they were. I look back with a thankfulness that I was able to continue growing. “When They See Us” reminds me that this is not an opportunity that is afforded to all Black youth. Many have learned this in ways that have had profound consequences on their life outcomes with some losing their lives entirely.

It stands to reason that boys of color would come to mistrust levers of power at young ages. I remember observing Mike Tyson’s rape trial long before I had even kissed a girl and feeling anger at a system out to take him down. I’ve fortunately never experienced anything close to what the Central Park Five went through but how different might my perspective be if I had? I would likely have come to see the issue of sexual violence solely as a realm where men of color are wrongly persecuted and indeed many men believe just this.

Having met survivors of all genders and races, I know instead that the “right” position depends on the situation. Blanket opinions against all alleged victims or all alleged perpetrators are nonsensical in a world that features both massive levels of interpersonal violence and an unmistakably flawed criminal justice system. I would hope that most of us could at least agree that we do not want to live in a world where we send people away for crimes in which a third party testifies that he alone is the guilty party, where said perpetrator is positively ID’d by the police, and where a city admits wrongdoing and settles monetarily. “When They See Us” asks us to consider if we are ok with this through the lens of five young men who lost significant portions of their lives on questionable circumstances. It ultimately asked me what I should be doing with the time afforded to me. For starters, the world still needs voices to challenge lingering myths that have real-world power.