‘When They See Us’ streams to over 23 million, community screenings help audiences get through tough issues explored in movie

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The case of the exonerated five and ‘When They See Us’ series shatters Netflix as local organizations hold screenings across the country.

The 1980s Central Park Five jogger case in New York started as a national story highlighting the inequities of race and class in the US criminal justice system. Since the late May release of “When They See Us,” a made-for-streaming series about the five Black and Latino boys falsely accused for a heinous crime and eventually convicted, has circled the globe multiple times.

Ava DuVernay who directed the Netflix production, announced that “When They See Us” has been streamed over 23 million times in less than a month. In a Twitter post, DuVernay wrote:

Imagine believing the world doesn’t care about real stories of black people. It always made me sad. So when Netflix just shared with me that 23M+ accounts worldwide have watched #WhenTheySeeUs, I cried. Our stories matter and can move across the globe. A new truth for a new day.

Today, the teens, now men and most of them married with children, are called the “Exonerated Five,” a name change to recognize that their convictions were overturned in 2003. In 1989, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Santana Raymond Jr. and Korey Wise, youth between the ages of 14 and 16, were arrested and coerced into confessions by officers in the New York Police Department for the assault and beating of a white female jogger. With the complicit actions of two district attorneys, Linda Fairstein and Elizabeth Lederer, the five went to trial and were found guilty. They served between 6 to 14 years.

In 2003, a confession by Matias Reyes, along with DNA evidence showed Reyes as the real assailant. In the same year, the five sued the City. Finally settling in 2014, NYC mayor, Bill de Blasio supported an agreement to a financial compensation and the data dump of court documents and police records from the case.

As the Exonerated Five story makes its rounds online, communities across the nation hold viewings and discussions offline, regarding the layers of issues presented in the series. “For some, the movie was a brilliant form of art. And it was. Ava Duvernay focused on the lives of those boys and we needed to see that. For me, ‘When They See Us’ was real. This movie hit home for a lot of us,” said Kofi Taharka, national chairperson of the National Black United Front (NBUF).

NBUF members protested and mobilized rallies during the Central Park Five case. “It was local organizations and the Black media organizations like the Amsterdam News that supported the families,” said Taharka. “The movie doesn’t detail that, but it was on-the-ground people and the Black press that presented another narrative.”

Recently, the Houston chapter of NBUF hosted a panel discussion and healing circle that used the series as a way to examine the years of injustice for people of African descent and other folk of color. The event operated from a tough question: “How do we protect ourselves and flourish in a white supremacist world?”

The eleven-speaker-panel comprised of lawyers, activists, ecumenical persons and media professions. Two featured guests were Antron McCray, one of the Exonerated Five and Roger Wareham, one of the attorneys representing the men.

Other participants included: Iya Agan Omilana Ifronke Fagbero-Amusan; Malik Muhammad, Deniz Yxzyotzin Lopez; Krystal Muhammad, Vivan R. King, Cesar Espinosa; and Pamela Muhammad.

Panel discussion on ‘When They See Us,” moderated by Swatara Olushola. Antron McCray’s talk stirred up deep emotions in the audience.
Audience listens to panelists talk about how to navigate white supremacy.

Taharka detailed. “People who were there said that they couldn’t see the movie alone, and needed to watch it with someone. Social workers and psychologists from the Association of Black Social Workers and the Association of Black Psychologists were there to help people. There was not a dry eye in that community center. Even Antron [McCray] cried. He told us that the system broke him. This is our reality. We now have to deal with the trauma and stress of millions who have been shuffled in the system.”

McCray said that he was the least likely to make public appearances, but started to do so because the other four told him “that it helps them deal” with residual emotional and psychological trauma they face from their ordeal. McCray admitted to turning down counseling during a talk with the Exonerated Five and the cast of “When They See Us” on an Oprah Winfrey special. However, a woman in the crowd who identified herself as a traditional healer who practices West African spiritual system asked him “to open up to other ways” to receive help.

“When don’t know what goes on in those jails, but we do know that many of our family members do not come back the same,” said Taharka.NBUF is one of many viewings held by grassroots and civic organizations. The Ubuntu Institute for Community Development in Spartanburg, South Carolina and The Gathering in Harlem screened “When They See Us” then opened the floor for discussions in June. In July, Our House Culture Center in Philadelphia has scheduled several viewings.

The night ended with a healing circle

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