Film note: When They See Us

Jharrel Jerome as Korey Wise blew my mind in Ava DuVernay's essential When They See Us. But I do have some reservations about the script.

Last updated on November 18th, 2019 at 06:02 pm

Originally published on Letterboxd.

When They See Us
Directed by Ava DuVernay
296 min, USA, 2019

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If I were to judge this 4-part Netflix mini-series solely on Ava DuVernay’s direction of actors, I’d have to give it 5 stars. I can’t offhand think of anyone better working anywhere in any medium or format.

Her direction of dialogue, however, isn’t in the same league as her own Middle of Nowhere or even the better sections of Selma. The script itself serves activist ends rather than dramatic ones far too often for my tastes and turns mechanical as a result. If the performances and direction of secondary and tertiary characters feel thin and lazy to you, you can also blame the script, I think, which really only cares about the central 5 who gets all of DuVernay’s love (and ours) and then some.

In part 4, focusing on the particularly egregious injustices perpetrated on Korey Wise, both the direction and script unnecessarily wax maudlin and manipulative, coming close to objectifying the character. Further, I’m suspicious of a few possibly fictional details but going into that would open a whole different can of worms. I wouldn’t have forgiven those choices so readily if it weren’t for the mind-blowing performance of Jharrel Jerome as Wise. I mean, wow, sure his turn in Moonlight was great but it only hints at the power and richness of what he achieves here. (To be fair, though, all the young actors were great; Jerome’s was simply exemplary.)

I highly recommend When They See Us as essential viewing but also encourage anyone moved by the film to catch the documentary and maybe even read Sarah Burns’ book. Each work leaves something important out, to my mind, and together they provide a fuller picture. In particular, sorry DuVernay fans, but the documentary does a much better job of providing cultural context and taking us back to a particular time and place. I don’t know where DuVernay is from or where she spent her formative years but When They See Us, most of the time, does not feel like a movie made by someone who knows and understands NYC well, at least not in the 80s. But maybe the feeling of a time shift to the present was intentional.

Finally, although this film and the documentary, The Central Park Five, are worthy, ironically the most affecting and important piece of filmmaking available to us within them is an excerpt from 16-year-old Korey Wise’s taped confession. In it, the histories of years of institutional injustice flicker by in a just a few minutes. In some ways, it’s all we really need to know to figure out who to believe.

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