Friday, June 19, 2020

Juneteenth 2020: “When They See Us”.

Juneteenth seems a good day to muse about how far Americans have come in the struggle for Black liberation, and how very far we still have to go. When I was in school, this day commemorating the end of slavery across the U.S.A. was never once mentioned. We all understood that slavery had ended, once and for all, in 1865. It took a while, until the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, for us to grasp that African-Americans, though technically free, were far from equal in the eyes of the law.

Flash forward to 2020. In the wake of the murder of George Lloyd by a member of the Minneapolis Police Department, we’re all taking stock, yet again, of the American response to its Black citizenry. The last few weeks have seen some forward progress, everything from peaceful protests by people of all colors to the news that Aunt Jemima – the benignly beaming Mammy figure on the box of pancake mix – is going off to that Great Plantation in the Sky. But, of course, injustices continue. More harsh rhetoric, more cold-blooded killings by cops who should certainly know better.

.Given what’s going on, this seemed an apt time to catch up with a TV mini-series from 2019, Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. This four-part drama explores the case of a jogger who was brutally raped and left for dead in New York’s Central Park in 1989. I remember the headlines at the time: the horror I felt at the notion that a group of African American teenagers, “wilding” in the park on a warm April evening, could so viciously attack a defenseless white female. The NYPD quickly swooped in and made a number of arrests. After the trials and convictions, I was glad to think of the gang who had become known as the  Central Park Five as safely beyond bars for a long time to come.

Only problem: there was absolutely no forensic evidence linking the five young men (one of them barely 14) to the attack on the jogger. Yes, they had  confessed to a multitude of crimes, but only after long hours of intense questioning, with their parents and attorneys nowhere in sight. DuVernay’s drama is at perhaps its most infuriating when we see exhausted boys, desperate to go home, being manipulated by police into naming one another as accomplices, even though most began the evening as complete strangers.

DuVernay’s drama, produced by such showbiz luminaries as Robert DeNiro, Oprah Winfrey, and screenwriter Robin Swicord, focuses on the five young men both before their conviction and after their release. It’s painful to see the extent to which they (and their families) are traumatized long after their release by the injustice they’ve suffered. Their stories are not identical, and DuVernay and her team do a superb job of intecutting their varied experiences into a powerful mosaic. For instance, when Raymond Santana is released from the youth authority after serving his six-year sentence, he comes home to an overcrowded apartment where his father has a hostile new wife and a toddler. But the most gripping footage involves the oldest of the boys, Korey Wise (played by Emmy-winner Jharrel Jerome) who for fourteen years suffered through the horrors of the New York prison system.

Some of the details seen on-screen have been disputed. Lead prosecutor Linda Fairstein, played by a coldly self-righteous Felicity Huffman, has cited factual errors and sued for defamation. But the abuses of young Black men by the police and prison systems are too glaring to dismiss. I will not soon forget what I have seen.

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