The Netflix miniseries When They See Us from Ava DuVernay is excruciating to watch—an unflinching look at the human wreckage left behind after New York City’s police, prosecutors, courts, and news media insisted that five young Harlem residents pay the price for a crime they didn’t commit: the rape and near-murder of a jogger in Central Park in the spring of 1989.
I was tempted to turn off the TV about 15 minutes in—and might have if my wife, an immigrant committed to understanding our country for what it is, hadn’t insisted on continuing. Many of my friends stopped early on or never started to begin with.
That title, When They See Us, was a conscious decision by DuVernay not to use the familiar shorthand for the case, “the Central Park Five.” That was the name of a 2012 documentary that described the mania to convict these five—Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise—who spent six to 13 years in prison before Matias Reyes, a murderer and serial rapist serving 33 years to life for other crimes, came forward to confess. His was the only DNA found at the crime scene.
For DuVernay’s miniseries, there would be no shorthand, no attempt to make the horror somehow familiar or routine. This time, the five young men wouldn’t simply be championed and vindicated, they would be seen. And when truly seen, Salaam, McCray, Richardson, Santana, and Wise become fully human. Though considering the instinct of many white viewers like myself to look away, a slightly different title—If They See Us—might also have made sense.
I grew up in New York City. I knew about the Central Park Five story. I knew that the case was later officially considered a miscarriage of justice. I was glad when New York City paid the five grown men $41 million in restitution.
But had I “seen” them? I’m afraid not. And this is what brilliant artists of color can do with such a subject that white artists basically can’t—bring to life an underexposed world and make you look. More than simply call out an injustice, the series explores the complex ways these events play out within a person’s soul, family, and community.
For example, the way Korey Wise’s absence deprived his transgender sister, Marci, of an ally when their mother turned against her. Or how the parents at times undercut each other to protect their own sons. Or how Kevin Richardson’s sister didn’t want to date and be happy while her brother was in prison.
These subplots make the injustice visceral but don’t follow a hagiographic script. They are not predictable, and they generate mixed feelings and divided loyalties. DuVernay was urged to tell this story by Santana, who made the suggestion in a 2015 tweet that included the hashtags #wishfulthinking #fingerscrossed.
He explained in an interview that he had seen DuVernay’s movie Selma, and appreciated that she included a scene of Coretta Scott King confronting her husband about extramarital affairs. If she could be unflinching toward an icon like Martin Luther King, the NYPD didn’t stand a chance. “That was bold to put in the film,” he told The New York Times. “It showed the human side of this man who was put on a pedestal. And it told me that she had no fear of telling the truth.”
The potential benefit from inclusion within the arts, politics, and technology is not simply to register that an injustice has been done and to seek to correct it, but to see the injustice all around and to insist on the human stakes involved and the unpredictable human reactions.
The other day, Ev Williams, a cofounder of Twitter, seemed on the defensive about Twitter and the harassment and abuse it has enabled. He had been introduced for a segment of CNBC as a Silicon Valley leader who now believed that “social media is toxic.” His first thought, he shared not long after on Twitter, was “Um … WTF.”
To be sure, he continued, there are problems with how social media platforms are used, but “I still strongly believe open platforms like Twitter are important for society. And it is almost impossible to capture the good without getting some bad. And there is much that should (and will) be done to make these places (this place) more civil.”
Williams admitted to some regret, saying Twitter should have devoted greater resources to the fight against harassment on the site. “I think we did more in the early days than we often get credit for (and they are doing way more today),” he wrote in his alternating defensive and self-critical thread of tweets. “And I personally underestimated the looming problem during my brief tenure as CEO.” He then explained, “Had I been more aware of how people not like me were being treated and/or had I had a more diverse leadership team or board, we may have made it a priority sooner.”
Watching When They See Us made me think what diverse leadership could mean for Hollywood and Silicon Valley too. Was it only to recognize harassment and abuse more quickly? The truth is, neither Williams nor anyone else can predict what having a more diverse leadership team would produce. There’s really only one way to know, and that would be to have a more diverse leadership team. We’ll get back to you on that one.
What we do know, broadly speaking, is that monolithic Silicon Valley leadership teams fail in seeing the humanity of the people who use these platforms and the unpredictability of how these platforms shape society. The leaders at these companies don’t reflect the society they operate in, and therefore don’t understand the different ways their innovations play out. They think they know what they are unleashing on the world, yet as we’ve learned in the past decade they haven’t a clue!
Williams ended his story by recounting a dinner he had with a famous (unnamed) person, who was quite upset about the abuse he received. “I felt for him,” Williams explained. “We’ve enabled people to be nasty in a new and visible way that didn’t exist before. Perhaps just as many people had those terrible views before, but they stayed inside their heads or within their family (to infect the next generation of bigots). Perhaps those views are being exacerbated or even created by access to other assholes via the internet.”
“Perhaps,” he continued, “they don’t even have those views and are just trying to be seen by someone anywhere because they didn’t get enough validation as children. I don’t know. We all have our dysfunctions.”
From Williams’s perspective, only someone dysfunctional would need to be seen. He couldn’t imagine that for so many, being seen is the difference between being a part of society or an outcast, even between life and death.