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'When They See Us' review: Ava DuVernay's Central Park Five series tough to watch, but powerful

Storm Reid as Lisa and Jharrel Jerome as

Storm Reid as Lisa and Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise in Netflix's "When They See Us." Photo Credit: Netflix/Atsushi Nishijima

LIMITED SERIES "When They See Us"

WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Ava DuVernay ("Selma") co-wrote and directed this four-parter about the five teens convicted in the 1989 beating and raping of a jogger in Central Park. "When They See Us" tracks the lives of Antron McCray (Jovan Adepo), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk/Justin Cunningham), Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse/Chris Chalk), Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome, "Moonlight") and Raymond Santana (Freddy Miyares) over a 25-year period, from arrest to vindication. They were prosecuted by head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney's office, Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) and Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Lederer (Vera Farmiga).
 

MY SAY DuVernay directs this nearly five-hour-long film with a clenched fist. That's a long stretch to be enraged, and a long stretch for viewers too, but under these circumstances, rage seems just about right. In 2002, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau reopened the case after someone else confessed to the crime, then recommended that the five convictions be vacated. They subsequently were. It then appeared these five teens had indeed been railroaded by police and prosecutors.

 If that reads like a carefully-drawn sentence linking weasel words ("it appeared") with an inflammatory one, then go to the record. It's an extensive one. Police and prosecutors continue to insist to this day that the convictions should have stood. The brunt of that record, however, does not support them. Sarah Burns' and Ken Burns' 2012 film, "The Central Park Five," explained what went wrong — terribly wrong — step by step, and in the process humanized the five men. In 2014, the city gave them $41 million without admitting wrongdoing.

This tragic case had everything, and continues to have everything, stripping bare the racial divide in the nation's largest city, and how politics, media, and the justice system exploit or widen it. DuVernay also makes certain to remind viewers that a future president played a role too when he called for reinstating the death penalty for the five.

But with everything at her disposal, DuVernay had to make a choice, and on the 30th anniversary, the choice she makes is the logical one. The title is the clue, and "us" is the giveaway, for this is seen entirely from their perspective. When you see the boys — then men — for who they really are, then and only then will you understand their ordeal. They will no longer be the "Central Park Five," but just five regular kids who were caught up in the system, then railroaded — that word again — all those years ago.

And in "When They See Us," these five are just regular kids — wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time kids who were snagged in an indiscriminate net and then refracted through everyone else's reality. In DuVernay's (also Burns') telling, prosecutors, cops and media frantically connected whatever dots they could find, then fabricated those they couldn't. Huffman's Fairstein is a bulldozer who plows over, then buries alive, any inconsistencies that get in her way. Farmiga's Lederer gets the line DuVernay hangs her with: "It's no longer about justice, it's about politics and politics is about survival and there's nothing fair about survival."

DuVernay makes an effective artistic choice by filming much of this through a blue filter, so that the boys' world is enveloped by a Kafkaesque indigo gloom from which they — and the viewer — can find no escape. Viewers are underwater with them, looking up to the surface for air.

Good luck finding any, and by part 4 — when Korey Wise is being brutalized at an upstate prison on an almost daily basis — you'll be gasping for it.

BOTTOM LINE Tough to watch, but an effective — and often powerful — indictment.

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