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When They See Us


They say anger can’t fuel creativity. I say watch Director Ava DuVernay’s docuseries When They See Us. I found myself experiencing every emotion from complete rage to incomplete bliss as I watched DuVernay’s four-part Netflix series and wrote a draft of this piece.

Each episode pulls at your emotional strings in its portrayal of the infamous, "Central Park Five" case. In 1989, five black and Latino boys appeared in court for assault, rape, and an attempt to murder a white woman in New York's Central Park. Through physical force, lies, and threats, the police convinced the boys into confessing to a crime they did not commit.

The jury sentenced the boys to spend between six to thirteen years in prison.

As depicted in the film, the teenage boys were out playing in the park when the rape occurred unbeknownst to any of them. While most of the boys were only listening to music and having a good time in Central Park, several decided to beat up some white adults in retaliation to a previous incident. Someone called the police. Before the police arrived and chased the scared group of boys, another young man unrelated to the teenagers raped a woman and left her to die.

The lady survived the brutal attack, and five boys who had nothing to do with the incident became targets of a racist police investigation. In a rush to solve the case, the boys were deprived of food, denied legal consultation, prevented from access to their legal guardians, and coerced into signing and recording confessions.

My compassion to make a positive impact on the lives of boys of color forced me to sit down and finish each episode. When I began watching the series, I found it challenging to look at more than twenty minutes at one time. It made me angry to watch the depictions of injustice equipped with the awareness that such tragedies are part of today's reality.

The series depicts a 1989 case, but racial and gender injustices continue in 2019. Trump's cameo appearance in the film series, where he discusses his support of the death penalty is not coincidental.

Every day in courthouses of The United States, innocent people go to prison. Many cases do not make it to trial, because defendants are encouraged to take plea bargain deals that offer reduced time behind bars. Yes, a significant number of black, brown, and lower income lives become forever altered in a country that declares freedom for all while serving justice for some.

In the series, DuVernay uses moving images to convey emotion. It appears that eyes are being shut on the screen as the verdict is read aloud in the courtroom. There is also a flash of one of the boys playing the trumpet in the street, symbolic of his connection to music and the experiences he would lose in prison.

The series, When They See Us, should stir in you a call to action.

One of the Central Park boys could not read at age sixteen. The school's failure to address his unique educational needs assisted the police in taking advantage of his mental limitations. WE must do better to help public schools in underserved communities. Tutoring and mentoring services can equip students to navigate options if they find themselves lost in the judicial system.

Although I live outside the US, I remain feeling led to take on projects that can make a positive impact in the lives of boys of color. My latest book that you should own depicts the work I did through Capoeira in Chicago to foster positive self-awareness and encourage activism with black boys. In my position on campus, I am helping young men of color to embrace more positive perspectives of theirselves, their communities, and their future work as physicians. I am also planning an initiative to offer free Capoeira classes to the youth at a local park this summer.

Whether you live in New York or Paris, let's work toward courageous leadership roles that can impact the lives of young boys of color. It’s Friday, watch Ava DuVernay’s film, When They See Us.


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