Impact Of Ava DuVernay's Netflix Series: 'When They See Us'

Jun 13, 2019
Originally published on June 13, 2019 5:34 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Director Ava DuVernay's Netflix miniseries "When They See Us" has drawn new attention to the case of the Central Park Five. In a special last night, Oprah Winfrey interviewed them. As teenagers, these black and Latino men were coerced by New York police into falsely confessing to the rape of a white jogger in Central Park in 1989. Their convictions were vacated in 2002, when someone else confessed to her rape. NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans is on the line.

Hi, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

KING: So Netflix tweeted yesterday that "When They See Us" has been their most-watched series in the U.S. every day since it was released in late May. This is despite the fact that, as you've written, this is a really hard series to watch.

DEGGANS: Yeah. You know, it took me three times to get through watching this series and, I admit, I cried while I watched parts of it. But in a way, I think the difficulty of watching some of these scenes - you know, seeing these teenage boys, they were aged 14 to 16, being physically and mentally coerced into these false confessions, thinking they could just go home - it's a crucial part of the show's power. I mean, it really makes you experience the trauma that they went through, that their families went through. And this comes at a time when we're already talking about how people of color are overpoliced or unfairly policed. So it really resonates.

KING: This miniseries has had some power in other ways, too. One New York prosecutor who is featured as a character in the miniseries, Linda Fairstein, she's called the show an outright fabrication. Fairstein's now a crime novelist, and she was dropped by her publisher and she resigned from the board of Vassar College. So some real repercussions from this show.

DEGGANS: Yeah. You know, it's going back to this high-profile controversy, and it's trying to unwind the unfairness that led to the unjust convictions and jail time for these teens back when it first happened. And in that process, people are looking back at the police and the prosecutors that were originally involved with the case, and they're saying, you know, shouldn't they also be held to account?

Now, as a critic, I did wonder how they came up with some of the language that Fairstein's character uses in some of the scenes where the men and their families couldn't have been present. They couldn't have known what, you know, she said to police. But the series is told from the perspective of these men and their families, and it's focused on showing how the system pushed them into these false confessions and then what happened to them afterwards. And the Fairstein character is a major vehicle for showing that.

KING: And we should note that this miniseries is based on real events but not a documentary. Eric, we've seen other TV shows that are based on real events bring changes after they go to air. Lifetime's "Surviving R. Kelly" detailed all of these allegations of sexual assault and statutory rape against him. He's now facing criminal charges. Is this part of some cultural trend, do you think?

DEGGANS: Well, I do think that "When They See Us" and "Surviving R. Kelly," they kind of have a lot in common. I mean, they're getting us to reconsider these stories about classic injustice - wealthy people getting away with abuse or people of color unfairly sent to jail. And they're asking us to reexperience those moments through a very powerful TV presentation. And then we're reexperiencing this stuff in a new social context. I mean, the #MeToo movement is showing us the value of really listening to abuse victims when they come forward. We have viral videos that show us how some people of color are unfairly policed.

And so we feel very differently about these stories now than when they first emerged in the news. And I suspect we're going to see more of these kinds of presentations because people realize they're a way to sort of give voice to marginalized and overlooked voices and challenge these incomplete or unfair versions of history.

KING: Yeah. I guess it is worth thinking about what the next TV miniseries might be. Eric Deggans, NPR TV critic. Thanks so much, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.