If you haven't already, you need to make time to watch When They See Us on Netflix. It's a four-part series, directed by Ava DuVernay and produced by Oprah Winfrey, about the true story of the five young men wrongfully convicted of an attack in Central Park in New York City back in 1989. At the time, the media referred to them as the "Central Park Five."
The first episode is painful. It's uncomfortable. My chest was tight, my stomach was in knots, and I had to take a break after seeing it.
In that first hour, we meet the five boys - Kevin, Korey, Antron, Yusef and Raymond - who are ages 14 - 16 at the time.
They are young, innocent and carefree. They have big dreams - to play professional baseball, to be lead trumpet in the school band. All of that changes in one night, when they are dragged to the police station, as suspects in a rape case.
What follows is heartbreaking. The police do not follow protocol - questioning the boys without a parent present, holding them overnight without food or water, and ultimately, persuading them to confess to something they weren't even aware had happened. Watching those scenes made me physically ill.
In episode two, we bear witness to the two trials (the boys are separated into groups). Vera Farmiga plays the prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, being pushed forward by Linda Fairstein, the head of sex crimes unit in Manhattan. Fairstein is played by Felicity Huffman.
Each boy has his own attorney, but the most screen time is given to Mickey Joseph, played by Joshua Jackson, and Bobby Burns, played by Blair Underwood.
This isn't a spoiler since these are real-life events, but all five boys are convicted, serving between six and fourteen years in prison. Korey Wise, who was the oldest of the boys at the time of the sentencing, was sent to adult prison (not juvenile detention), tossed in with grown men.
The fourth and final episode focuses on Korey's story. Jharrel Jerome plays Korey throughout the series (all of the other men are portrayed by two actors - one in their youth and one as an adult). Jerome deserves every award possible for this performance - Emmy, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild. He was magnificent, bringing us inside that prison cell, making us feel his claustrophobia, his fear, and eventually, his attempts at hope.
Too many years later, the real perpetrator of the crime confessed. Some of the men had already been released, but for others, like Korey, it took that guilty party coming forward to end his time behind bars.
When I finished the series, I felt heavy for days. There's a fifth hour that I would highly recommend watching, called When They See Us Now. In that additional hour, Oprah Winfrey interviews Ava DuVernay about her choices as the series director, talks with the actors who play the young men and the adult men, and then closes by speaking with the five real men about their experience, where they are now, and how they're trying to move forward. It was really powerful.
While this isn't easy viewing, it's so important.