The Exonerated Five: How Ava DuVernay Captured a Harrowing History and Captivated Netflix Audiences
Kimberly Clarke

Ava DuVernay’s moving mini-series broke Netflix records and portrayed the very real consequences of a centuries-old racist myth.

Upon learning of the success of her 2019 Netflix mini-series When They See Us, Academy Award-nominated American director Ava DuVernay tweeted, “Imagine believing the world doesn’t care about the real stories of black people… Our stories matter and can move across the globe.”

The four-episode series dramatises the true story of the Central Park Five, the name given to the five black and Latino boys (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise) wrongly convicted of the brutal rape of the Central Park Jogger, white 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili. Though DuVernay calls her new project “a new truth for a new day”, it tells a tragic yet familiar story of an attempted public lynching.

The historic “myth of the black rapist”

The mini-series has been a commercial and critical success, earning 16 Emmy nominations, including eight in the acting categories and eight in the writing and directing categories. Last night its 21-year-old lead Jharrel Jerome took home the award for Outstanding Lead Actor, and paid tribute to the Exonerated Five in his acceptance speech – all of whom were present in the audience and thanked him with a standing ovation.

When They See Us fits aptly into DuVernay’s retrospective on race relations in the US. Along with Selma (2014) and her 2016 documentary 13th, When They See Us allows DuVernay to assert herself as leading a social justice movement that has continued to re-examine policies targeting black and Latino people in the United States.

With this series, DuVernay also joins a lineage of black women activists like Ida B. Wells and Angela Davis in exploring what Davis calls the “myth of the black rapist”, which has pervaded American society since Reconstruction and the beginnings of the Jim Crow South. Civil rights activist and author of Southern Horrors (1892), The Red Record (1895) and Mob Rule in New Orleans (1900), Ida B. Wells highlights that the image of the black male rapist was used to justify the lynching of members of the black community. Wells writes in The Red Record that when it came to accusing black men of such crimes, “the white people concluded it was unnecessary to wait for the result of the investigation – that it was preferable to hang the accused first and try him afterward” (p.70). Accusing black men of raping white women was, according to Wells, a political and economic tool to combat black upward mobility and citizenship. Eighty years later, University of California professor and political activist Angela Davis wrote of the institutionalisation of this myth in her book Women, Race, and Class (1983). She asserts, “the rape charge turned out to be the most powerful of several attempts to justify the lynching of Black people” (p.185). As American society was built on white male supremacy, Davis finds that the enduring fiction of black men as rapists continues to legitimise excessive violence in defence of women’s virtue (p.187).

This myth of the black male rapist reverberates throughout 20th- and 21st-century American politics and culture from the true stories of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teens falsely accused in Alabama of raping two white women in 1931, to the brutal murder of 14-year old Emmett Till in 1955, falsely accused of flirting with a white woman in Mississippi. The miscarriage of justice during the Scottsboro Boys trial and Till’s murder, and the initial acquittal of his killers, still symbolise the long tradition of racial bias in the criminal justice system. Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning best seller To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) examines racism in the criminal justice system in its depiction of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama, while James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), adapted as Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-nominated film in 2018, explores the enduring love between Fonny and Trish after a white police officer frames Fonny for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman.

Along with the omnipresent myth of the black male rapist in the American psyche, decades of high unemployment, police corruption and mob violence were combined to galvanise the public against the Five as well. New York City’s rising crime rate throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s was originally attributed to police corruption and rising unemployment in the mid-‘70s, pushing the city towards bankruptcy. The late-‘70s crime wave, fuelled by the David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz murders, blackouts and lootings, was followed by the crack cocaine epidemic and racially-motivated mob violence of the ‘80s. Black MTA worker Willie Turks was killed by a mob of white men in Brooklyn in 1982; Michael Griffin was murdered in 1986 while being attacked by white men in the predominantly white community of Howard Beach, Queens; and a mob of white male teens in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, targeted and then shot 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins in 1986. The hysteria around the myth of the black male rapist and surrounding black and Latino men in general is as old as the United States itself.

Seven years after Ken and Sarah Burns’ documentary The Central Park Five, Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us provides a gripping indictment of a nation still captive to racist mass hysteria. The true events of When They See Us echo many of the real and fictionalised stories that continue to shape black and Latino communities in the US. DuVernay tactfully uses Donald Trump’s role in the persecution of the Five to link his manipulation of the myth of the black rapist to his political campaign and presidency 30 years later. During the trial, real estate developer Donald Trump spent $85,000 placing ads in four newspapers calling for the lynching of the Five, with the exclamation, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY! BRING BACK THE POLICE!” In 2015, President Trump would rely not only on the myth of the black rapist, but he would also invoke the myth of the Mexican rapist sent illegally to the US to begin his presidential campaign. In her illustration of Trump’s central role in the miscarriage of justice against the Five, DuVernay signals that this new story is a centuries-long call for the lynching of black and Latino men from those within the highest echelons of power.

Old stories of injustice for a new day

When They See Us succeeds not because of its “new truth for a new day” nor for its harrowing depiction of the US criminal (in)justice system. Rather, the mini-series is most spell-binding because of its intimate portrayal of the boys’ commitment to each other, their fraying relationships with their communities, and the inner workings of their personal lives within a penal system and society that has abused them.

The first two episodes sweep the boys through the night of the rape, where they all gather with a large group of peers at the park on the night of Meili’s brutalisation. The episodes then subject viewers to the chaos of the police’s reckless search for the attackers and dramatise what is the most difficult part of the Five’s story: their confession to the crime, despite later claiming their innocence. The first and second episodes reflect The Innocence Project’s findings that “in the past 25 years, 38% of exonerations of crimes allegedly committed by youth involved false confessions… when you are imposing those techniques on an individual who is young, who is intellectually vulnerable, the capacity of the person to withstand the process is easily overcome.”

In the mini-series, Linda Fairstein, attorney, author and inspiration for the character of Olivia Benson in Law and Order: SVU, is positioned at the epicentre of a plan to scapegoat the boys through utilising deceptive confessionary techniques. DuVernay depicts Fairstein (played Felicity Huffman) as instigating the boys’ false confessions and exemplifying the worst-case scenario of weaponising the real tragedy of Meili’s brutal rape to solidify her authority within the Manhattan sex crimes unit. Despite no physical evidence tying the boys to the crime, they are convicted and sentenced to between 5 and 15 years in juvenile detention or prison. It was only Matias Reyes’ 2002 confession – not continued police investigations – that exonerated the boys of their conviction.

The third and fourth parts of the series balance DuVernay’s social commentary on the savagery of the US criminal justice systems with the boys’ personal and familial relationships, as they are released from confinement and grapple with their public images as rapists. Antron (Caleel Harris) confides in his mother, played by Emmy-nominated Marsha Stephanie Blake, with, “I feel like the whole world hate us.” Blake’s Linda McCray compassionately responds, “I love you enough to make up for everybody.” These poignant, and at times fragile, personal connections transform When They See Us from a show that is agonising to watch to one that enthrals, as the series draws the audience into the inner lives of these boys, their communities and their families.

These more intimate moments shape the second half of the mini-series and reach its crescendo with Jharrel Jerome’s Korey Wise, the eldest of the Five, who at 16 was sentenced not to juvenile detention but adult prison. His relationship with his mother and his connection to his transgender sister Marci Wise (played by Isis King) are some of the most memorable arcs in the mini-series, succeeding in aligning different kinds of persecution, alienation and courage. Jerome, now the winner of the Emmy, gives a heartbreaking portrayal of a young man trapped by the system, yet ultimately able to reclaim a part of his soul still untouched by the brutality around him.

For audiences unfamiliar with the indelible mark the myth of the black male rapist has left on American society, When They See Us moves people across the globe to see and protect black humanity. The series is also an opportunity for the Exonerated Five, as they are consciously re-named in the post-show Oprah interview – an essential afterword to the mini-series – to bring their experiences to new audiences and advocate for much-needed criminal justice reforms. Yet for those fully aware of the depth of this history and those who continue to live in fear of persecution by law enforcement, When They See Us may be triggering and leave us craving for more.


Photo Credit: Netflix
Kimberly Clarke

Kimberly Clarke


Kimberly Clarke an independent scholar and teaches in Alexandria, Virginia.

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