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‘When They See Us’ exposes a legacy of hatred aimed at black men

From the Scottsboro Boys to the Central Park Five, much of white America has always despised black boys

“When do we ever get to be boys?”

It is a question that Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece When They See Us asked in a gripping preview to a four-part series based on the true story of the Central Park Five.

It is also a question that rings true through American history.

Fourteen-year-old George Stinney was tried and executed in South Carolina in 1944 in an unfair trial. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 because a white woman said he whistled at her. The Scottsboro Boys, whose trials predated both the Stinney and Till murders, were a group of nine teenagers from 12 to 19 who were accused of rape in 1931.

Society’s sordid perception of black boys and men won’t allow for that growth to happen gracefully. And so, we’ve got to fight like hell and through hell for our kids.

This generation is not without its horror stories. Tamir Rice was 12 when he was gunned down by police because he brandished a toy gun and, inexplicably enough, looked like an adult.

The cruel boys-to-men journey that so many black men in America have experienced is displayed in DuVernay’s depiction of five boys — Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Korey Wise — who were treated and tried as men. The series has been so tough for some to watch that those folks could only stand to watch 15 or 20 minutes of the four-hour-plus series. The individuals who made their way to the fourth episode dived into the especially tough journey of young Korey, who, at 16, was tried as an adult and sent to Rikers Island and Attica Correctional Facility.

As much as racial injustice is a common denominator of these cases, there’s also the truth that America will not address honestly. This country cares more about the claims of a white damsel in distress than it does the obligation of justice for black boys.

DuVernay displays this dynamic masterfully through her portrayal of diabolical prosecutor Linda Fairstein. The portrayal of Fairstein was so decisive that it has led to petitions and a call for Fairstein’s publisher to drop her. Some would like to take it a step further — specifically, for Fairstein to do time.

That will be hard for America to stomach. It’s still hard for certain folks to come to the realization that Rose Armitage was a predator and not a victim in Get Out. The silver-haired, pale-skinned Daenerys Targaryen wasn’t a ruler who demanded total obedience and killed innocents. No, she was misunderstood and had “daddy issues.”

Such pathology is explained in the second episode of the four-part series. Elizabeth Lederer (played by Vera Farmiga in the series) was the district attorney assigned to the case by Fairstein. There’s a cold and calculated dialogue that she had with defense attorney Mickey Joseph (played by Joshua Jackson) in an attempt to make a deal:

Lederer: Fair? What’s that word mean, anyway?

Joseph: I don’t know, something to do with justice, I think.

Lederer: It’s no longer about justice, counselor. It’s about politics. And politics is about survival. And there’s nothing fair about survival.

Joseph: Survival at what cost? These boys don’t deserve to pay the price …

Lederer: I’m not interested in having a philosophical …

Joseph: Then what are you interested in?

Lederer: I asked you here to talk about a deal.

While that dialogue likely takes liberties with the original commentary, the message is clear. The “deal” comes at the expense of black boys — if not their lives, their innocence, and for what? The illusion of white purity.

That loss is especially harsh for Korey, who struggles with the decision to accompany his good friend Yusef. There’s a scene in the fourth and final episode when Korey, who was transferred to Attica, had a heat-induced flashback. Had there been music to accompany Korey’s pain, it likely would have been K-Ci and JoJo’s Life, the title track about a movie where two men were jailed for a crime they didn’t commit.

Temperature’s like a hundred degrees

Like I got chains on me

Black male in a family of three

Been robbed of my destiny

Reckon I’ll fly away

‘Cause it’s too much for the man

Shouldn’t have gone down this way

What happened to my master plan?

‘Cause I can’t figure out

I could have been a loved child

Shouldn’t have gone down this way

When iconic comedians Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence collaborated on the movie Life in 1999, it was rightfully billed as a comedy-drama filled with laughs and high jinks. No matter how much we laughed at the movie, though, one unsettling fact remained:

Claude (Lawrence) and Ray (Murphy) spent their entire lives in jail for a crime they didn’t commit. What played out in a movie was, and still is, the reality of many black men in the South and throughout the country, and it’s no laughing matter.

Life was released on April 16, 1999 — almost 10 years to the date of one of the grossest miscarriages of justice that has ever played out in the public eye. DuVernay’s visceral visuals begin with a single date: April 18, 1989. It was the day five young boys lost their childhood.

In ‘When They See Us,’ Ava DuVernay shows the horrors that swallowed the Central Park Five

“When do we get to be boys?”

One of the most powerful scenes in the series is the picture of the incomparable Aunjanue Ellis, who plays the role of Salaam’s mother, Sharonne. She storms into the police station and not only demands to see her son but (temporarily) liberates him from the ravenous prosecutors and police.

The burden of responsibility for making sure that our children grow into adulthood, and aren’t forced into it, falls on parents and guardians. Society’s sordid perception of black boys and men won’t allow for that growth to happen gracefully, and so we’ve got to fight like hell and through hell for our kids.

Their lives, our lives, depend on it.

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his 17-month old son.