I may never see When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s groundbreaking, disturbing and necessary mini-series on Netflix about the Central Park Five saga, one of the worst chapters in New York City’s long tradition of racially biased law enforcement and mass media.
If I were still raising minor children, I’d be watching When They See Us with them, just as my mother required us to watch the groundbreaking Roots miniseries in 1977 (Her oldest child, I was 17 then).
However, I lived through the whole Central Park Five (Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise) media massacre—and the false narrative of young black and brown males “wilding” through the city that it justified—both personally, as a resident of Brooklyn, and professionally as a New York journalist. I’ve reached a stage of my life where I do my best to avoid unnecessarily re-traumatizing experiences.
I’m not saying I’ll never watch the mini-series, but… let’s just say that I’m going to protect my mental health and spiritual peace, PERIOD.
The people who most need to watch When They See Us (in addition to young people) are those who are in deepest denial of the racial injustice that contaminates both law enforcement and mass media—which puts the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of black people, and young black males in particular, at ever present risk.
What made Roots matter was not that it was a revelation for black people (other than us kids at the time), but for white people (including many of my high school classmates) who were ignorant or in denial of the reality of slavery. The same must happen for content like When They See Us if we hope for comparable impact. (By the way, the media currently showering this series with accolades—and likely to add more than a few well-deserved awards in the future—is the same media that vilified the Central Park Five, and continues to vilify victims of police brutality today.)
As for me, I’ve seen this “movie” too many times. The Scottsboro Boys. The Groveland Four. Jena Six. And countless others too numerous to name. I’ll pass on When They See Us, at least for now.
The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author’s and not necessarily the opinion of Black Enterprise.
Editor’s Note A previous version of this article incorrectly categorized When They See Us as a documentary.