Saturday, June 1, 2019

REVIEW: 'When They See Us' - Korey Experiences a Brutal Decade in Prison Before the Truth is Revealed in 'Part Four'

Netflix's When They See Us - Episode 1.04 "Part Four"

At age 16, Korey begins a brutal journey through the adult prison system. A shocking turn of events reveals the truth of the crime, long ignored.

In 2018, there were 495 scripted shows airing amongst the linear channels and streaming services. The way people are consuming content now is so different than it used to be. It happens according to one's own schedule. As such, there is less necessity to provide ample coverage of each specific episode in any given season from a show. Moreover, it is simply impossible to watch everything. As such, this site is making the move to shorter episodic reviews in order to cover as many shows as possible. With all of that being said, here are my thoughts on the series finale of Netflix's When They See Us.

"Part Four" was written by Ava DuVernay & Michael Starrbury and directed by Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay is such a masterful and powerful storyteller. The material she depicts resonates for a universal audience while exposing some of the most horrific injustices that occur in the criminal justice system. This limited series fits in perfectly with the other work she has created over the last decade - Selma, 13th and Queen Sugar. Her approach to the story of what happened to Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Korey Wise was very purposeful and significant. This series took a macro look at the various systems that led to childhood being taken away from these five men. It wasn't just one decision that one person made that ultimately fueled this tragedy. Instead, it was multiple decisions that multiple people made in a system that has significant biases and failings. These five mens were all victims of a malicious prosecution that refused to admit that it was wrong even when confronted with glaring evidence that they were all innocent. It's brutal to watch as the show actually depicts the assault that happened in Central Park all those years ago. It's vicious and shows how that action led to so many more individuals getting hurt as a result. Because the five were convicted for this crime, it allowed the true assailant to continue abusing women in this way. His crimes only escalated as well with him eventually killing his victims. It seems so stark in context. Nancy Ryan was there the night the investigation began. She understood that not everything was lining up. And yet, she allowed Linda Fairstein to take over. Linda was the one leading the charge. She was backed up by police officers who shared the same mindset and needed to punish the animals they viewed as criminals just because they exist in the same physical space. It's horrifying. Nancy sees a clear pattern by Matias Reyes when it comes to committing multiple rapes and murders. It lines up perfectly with the case a few months prior in the park. But it took until 2002 when he confessed to the crime for the five convicted to actually be exonerated and believed. They always maintained their innocence. That was a powerful theme throughout this series as well. They did what they had to do to survive. That instinct just proved to be damaging in so many ways because they felt like they had no other choice. But the people in positions of power condemned them to these fates without actually taking a hard look at the evidence and doing their jobs accordingly. It may not have been as simple as Matias being covered in the victim's blood walking out of the park in the immediate aftermath. And yet, he is a complete match for the DNA that was recovered at the scene. There was never any evidence that connected Kevin, Antron, Yusef, Raymond or Korey to the crime. But the power of perception shaped how the world looked at them. They deserve this spotlight now to have their stories told in an honorable and true way. This series never shied away from the most brutal and despicable moments. However, it also shines a light on the humanity involved. These five men have managed to build lives for themselves. They weren't forever shaped by this case. The government did the right thing eventually in settling for millions of dollars for the pain and suffering it caused them and their families.

And yet, it's also important to point out that one person's experience within the system isn't the same as anyone else's. It's completely different for everyone. Sure, there are patterns that paint such a stark and depressing portrait of a system that condemns certain individuals while allowing others to walk completely free with no consequences. The previous episode highlighted the many ways in which Kevin, Antron, Yusef and Raymond managed to survive because of their families. That connection was never lost. It was for Korey though. This concluding episode is unlike the preceding three because it focuses so intently on one story. It spends over an hour just detailing Korey's experiences within prison. He never made parole. He was only released in 2002 after the convictions were vacated. He maintained his innocence. That was absolutely crippling to him because it meant he could never be approved for parole. It was just as damaging to watch as he was sentenced to a maximum security facility. He wasn't sent away to juvie like the other four. There was an additional burden placed on his family that made it increasingly difficult for him to get visitors. In fact, he spent a lot of time in pure isolation. At first, Korey is defined by his innocence. He doesn't understand everything that's happening and how it relates to his life. He doesn't understand the world as it has suddenly become for him. Prison is a huge wake-up call because he is constantly abused by the grown men who see him as the most despicable inmate for committing this sex crime. His notoriety marks him as a celebrity and a target. He doesn't have anyone he can rely on for support. The only hope he has is the potential of being transferred to a better prison. That never works though. He pursues that multiple times and it only gets worse for him. It means years go by without seeing his mother. His transgender sister is killed. That too is such a poignant moment because it highlights the many ways in which the world was abusive and corrosive to communities of color. Delores wasn't immune to that hatred either. She shunned her daughter and continued to deadname her for a long time. She eventually found religion and came to love Marci. But then, it was too late. She had to give all her love and support to Korey even though she was continually in the dark about where he was and how he was doing. This was such a grueling decade inside prison for Korey. He was pushed to the brink of sanity on multiple occasions. He suffered injuries that absolutely could have crippled him for life. He has some salvation in the form of his imagination and a Chia pet. It's the simple moments that allow him to survive. However, it's still so brutal. The physicality of the performance is so stunning from Jharrel Jerome. He is the only actor who plays both the teenage and adult version of Korey Wise. Sure, it's a little awkward in the end when all the men stand together free and innocent once more. However, it also keeps the audience painfully in the moment and along for this journey. It's such an eye-opening experience about how the abuses of the prison system inform human behavior. That should never be lost in any of this. Justice was eventually found. There is reason to be hopeful. And yet, there hasn't been much improvement in our culture in the years since either.