I didn’t want to take this ride. I knew film director Ava DuVernay would take me on a journey to destinations where new journeys begin – invariably in search of justice for black people in America. I’m never ready for the emotional roll-a-coaster; the gut-wrenching; soul-stirring horror DuVernay’s films evoke. But history demands I face my fears to connect the dots which tie our enslavement story together. With trepidation lurking, I pushed the start button for this Netflix movie: When They See Us.
The four-part series begins with a group of young black boys caught between the innocence of youth and the dignity of manhood embarking on a “boys will be boys” truant adventure in New York City’s Central Park. In search of fun and escapades, five of these young boys would have their lives altered in ways they never envisioned or imagined. At the end of the day, all five young boys would beckon for the same outcome: “I just want to go home.” The yearning for the actualization of this mantra becomes the basis for their unjust incarceration.
The story revolves around the raping and beating of a white female jogger. While running thru New York’s Central Park she is mutilated, raped, and beaten within inches of her life. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex Crime Unit is aghast! At the helm is Linda Fairstein who is hell-bent on convicting someone. In her haste to get a conviction or convictions, Fairstein bends and contorts the legal system like a pretzel. Following her lead, police and detectives, interrogate, abuse, and harass these young black boys without legal representation, without employing the Miranda rule, or having their respective parents present. In those instances where their parents were present, police coerce and trick their parents into going along with custom-designed “concocted stories” in order to “just go home.”
I’m sifting the sands of time thru my fingers…yet time stands still when it comes to justice for black people. Today is yesterday; tomorrow is looking back: The Central Park Five is no different than the Scottsboro Boys. On a Southern railroad train in Paint Rock, Alabama, March 25, 1931, nine black boys are arrested on charges of assault. Later rape charges are added. A lynch mob out for vigilante justice surrounds the Scottsboro jail. Two white women are said to have been raped by all nine boys. A jury indicts the nine boys for rape. The two white women were not as virtuous as the white establishment led most to believe. In fact, they both were prostitutes who concocted the story out of thin air. The nine black boys were eventually released after serving ten years!
Fast forward to April 19, 1989: President Trump, a real estate magnate at the time, takes out a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the execution of the Central Park Five. These young boys were characterized as “wilding out” by the press. Of all the stories written by the press about this horrendous case only twice were the words “alleged” used to defend their innocence – until proven guilty! Just as today is yesterday and tomorrow is looking back, the Central Park Five were incarcerated between five and thirteen years. An admission of guilt by the perpetrator is the ONLY reason why these young men were released. DNA evidence later exonerates all five. The Manhattan District attorney’s office did nothing in favor of justice.
DuVernay captures the power of the human spirit like energy from the sun. You can never underestimate the love a mother has for her child. In one poignant scene, the youngest of the Central Park five is talking to his visiting mother about the recurring dream he is having. He tells his mother he keeps hearing footsteps in his dream and they keep getting closer and closer. With caring eyes, the mother stares deep into the window of her son’s soul and passionately tells him, “That’s me coming to get you.” At that point, my machismo gave way to expressions of pain and sorrow. DuVernay’s emotional roller-coaster mini-series is in full effect. I told you from the outset I didn’t want to take this ride.
Today, Fairstein still maintains justice was served as she continues to count her untold millions from the five crime novels she has written. A boycott of her books is being circulated online. I already signed it. Fairstein has since resigned from several boards. In the face of all the evidence, Fairstein holds steadfastly to doing nothing wrong – along with the entire police department. In the end, the Central Park Five was awarded $41 million for their wrongful convictions. The largest in the city’s history. But Fairstein and the police departments did nothing wrong?
Ralph Ellison, the famed writer/ancestor, and author of the classic book Invisible Man, wrote about how America sees black people. DuVernay’s When They See Us corroborates what Ellison wrote about decades ago and they both beg the question of whether America sees us at all?
Tolson Banner is a writer and columnist.