Ava DuVernay’s Netflix propaganda series When They See Us, recreating the 1989 Central Park jogger case, marks out its territory. Her narrative presents five black teenagers being railroaded into prison for the peak years of their lives by a racist criminal- justice system. But the show is not about a harrowing historical moment; it’s about societal guilt.
You’d be mistaken to think that DuVernay’s title is a sequel to Jordan Peele’s Us, addressed to black viewers who are woke to the African-American phenomenon of distrust in “the white gaze,” or that she examines the perpetual anxiety of living in a suspicious, punitive culture. Fact is, DuVernay’s latest prank (after the insipid civil-rights epic Selma, her obtuse constitutional-amendment doc 13th, and her fantasy/box-office flop A Wrinkle in Time) is designed to appease her benefactors. She plays to the empowered white media elite, her film- and TV-industry sponsors, who enjoy the self-reproach that comes with being reminded of their own privilege. It’s clever career shtick: DuVernay specializes in white guilt and feeling helplessly culpable in the racism committed by others of their class.
Through hindsight awareness, DuVernay’s draining, four-part saga repeatedly touches on bureaucratic insensitivity — the indifference of district attorney Robert Morgenthau (Len Cariou); the vengeful, careerist obsession of prosecutor-turned-crime-novelist Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman); and the helpless dutiful peoples’ attorney (Vera Farmiga). Their apathy toward the five youths converges into the straw-man figure of Donald Trump, whose peripheral ruling-class commentary at that time (presented in TV-news flashbacks) is routinely condemned. It’s as if, even back in the day when citizen Trump was a hip-hop music idol regaled for audacity and bling, he was singularly responsible for New York racism. DuVernay’s political animus (“That devil wants to kill my ,son” scoffs a mawkish Harlem Five mom) makes for blinkered history.
The series’s early, coercive episodes feature the angry faces of white New York City cops who bully the teens into confessing crimes they did not commit. Based on assumptions about race and tensions felt between urban blacks and white police authorities, these scenes, already enraging enough, prove that DuVernay has no large vision of American urban experience. When They See Us disrupts the authentic perception of white ethnic characters and their personal conflicts seen in Sidney Lumet’s New York dramas (from The Pawnbroker, Dog Day Afternoon, and Bye, Bye Braverman to Prince of the City, Q&A, Night Falls on Manhattan, Find Me Guilty, etc.). DuVernay’s racist whites repeat the same caricature seen in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. The result, also borrowing the pseudo-journalistic style of TV’s Law and Order procedural series, is a puny American epic geared to the divisiveness of this period.
But Ava also has tricks up her sleeve for black viewers: When They See Us portrays the Central Park Five in a romanticized victim mode. Cinematographer Bradford Young uses the fuzzy-portraiture effect pioneered by music video director Matt Mahurin in his 1996 film Mugshot. The “wilding-out” kids whom Fairstein disdains are photographed inside a soft-focus aureole. The implication is not documentary realism, but dreamy innocence.
This affectation works to convey DuVernay’s concept of an uneducated generation raised in ignorance about history and social comportment yet who are also taught resentment. That notion about the Central Park Five also applies to Netflix viewers indoctrinated by mainstream-media heroizing of social-justice cult figures Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin against evidence to the contrary. She treats the Harlem Five, dubbed “wolfpack” by the media, like new versions of the Scottsboro Boys (favorites of 1930s Communists). The only fin de siècle authenticity comes from brief soundtrack samples of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” imitating Ernest Dickerson’s Juice and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” imitating Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
In the music video Bad, Michael Jackson and Martin Scorsese already told the modern ghetto story of Harlem schoolboys trying to fit in with neighborhood toughs. A great filmmaker would, similarly, put herself in the boys’ imagination (after the fashion of John Singleton’s Baby Boy and Boyz n the Hood), but Ava stays outside, seeing only dysfunction. (Multiple subplots about the futile and aggrieved families are a gallery exhibition of various social pathologies.) She thinks like a propagandist, not an artist — especially when her plot jumps forward to prison release and the sweet, pathetic boys have undergone Moonlight transformations into erotically striking hunks led by Freddy Miyares’s Raymond Santana. The gimmick is to create martyrs as well as fetish objects.
DuVernay’s brutalized, naïve kids turn on each other, then huddle together to ask “Why they doing us like this?” “What other way they ever treat us?” Credible or not, DuVernay’s glib dramatization (co-written by several teleplay writers, primarily Robin Memoirs of a Geisha Swicord) is unhelpful. Her victim narrative ignores what incarcerated boys to do to/for each other; only the final episode concentrates on Korey Wise’s (Jharrel Jerome) torment and solitary confinement. Instead, DuVernay’s “truth” (to use co-producer Oprah Winfrey’s nostrum) colors scenes that perpetuate the unresolved resentment festering within a social sector that still feels the humiliation of second-class citizenship, despite the contradictory success and acceptance and elevation exemplified by DuVernay herself — who then turns demagogue.
We know DuVernay’s technique is specious from the series’ careful method of avoiding media scrutiny — ignoring how New York’s tabloid press and TV rabble-rousers engaged in fear-mongering and racial stereotyping. (Details of that zeitgeist fever were captured in 1991 in Joan Didion’s essential New York Review of Books essay “Sentimental Journeys.”) DuVernay is on the media’s side (Fox logos are prominent, CBS, ABC, and NBC logos are absent) even when the media are against the well-being of black youths and the commonwealth. Ava’s not a Costa-Gavras-style social crusader-artist or a journalist-dramatist such as Phil Karlson in the inquiry The Phenix City Story; she’s a rhetoric hack, sentimentalizing a complicated event in New York’s tragic history while carelessly pleading for revolution.
In the epilogue about the boys’ release, a disembodied female voice narrates/celebrates the $41 million settlement from New York City. This reveals DuVernay’s ultimate point as well as her mainstream media’s celebration of her as “a visionary.” When They See Us summarizes the Central Park Five case during an argument among politicos: “It’s not about fair; it’s about politics and politics is about survival.” DuVernay, Winfrey, and Swicord are wrong: Politics are about power, that’s the only truth for Hollywood race hustlers. DuVernay is in the demoralization business.