Ava DuVernay, director of the movies “Selma” and “13th” and co-creator of television’s “Queen Sugar,” has made a docudrama in four parts — one might even say “movements,” for each has its own musical speed and spin — about the Central Park Five. “When They See Us” premieres Friday on Netflix, and perhaps because DuVernay, a co-writer here as well as the sole director, has experience both in documentary and drama, it works much better than such projects often do. A human story teased from history, it is personal and political, inextricably and in equal measure.
If this bit of history has faded from your memory, or never made it that far — and one suspects DuVernay has made this film specifically to remedy either possibility — it involved the arrest and wrongful conviction of five black and Latino Harlem juveniles, for the 1989 rape and beating of a white female jogger, Trisha Meili, in New York’s Central Park. Occurring the same night that a large group of teenagers ran through another part of the park, some committing random acts of violence — they would be characterized as a “wolf pack” — it was a literal tabloid sensation in a crime-ridden city. That tone infected mainstream coverage, as well, and in many minds, the case was settled almost as soon as it started. Within two weeks, Donald Trump, characterized here as a “real estate hustler,” took out full-page ads in four newspapers, calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York. Those were not different times.
Five boys — Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise (formerly Kharey Wise) — were charged with the assault on Meili. Their mutually contradictory confessions, made under duress, were quickly recanted, but all were convicted on the strength of those confessions, in spite of a lack of physical evidence. The convictions were vacated in 2002, when the actual rapist came forward; DNA evidence and his detailed knowledge of the event supported the confession. After more than a decade of stalling, the city of New York settled with defendants for $41 million.
One reason “When They See Us” remains compelling from beginning to end is that DuVernay subtly changes her approach from episode to episode, moving deeper into character as the series progresses. She generally avoids speechifying; there is a bit at the end, but to be fair, someone is making a speech.
The first half of the series is the more straightforward. Episode 1, which looks at the attack and the arrest, differentiates quickly its large cast of characters, and it catches the confusing energy of the streets and the suffocating air of the police station. Director of photography Bradford Young (“Selma,” “Arrival”) works mostly in a hand-held, shallow-focus style that mixes the floating swing of documentary footage with intentional art photography — his camera is a sort of extremely discerning fly on the wall.
Episode 2 focuses on the trial, where every defendant had his own lawyer, of varying experience, style and competence — Joshua Jackson and Blair Underwood are among the actors playing them. Vera Farmiga plays prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer, whom DuVernay treats as something of a voice of reason, critical of assistant district attorney Linda Fairstein, the zealous head of the city’s sex crimes unit — played here, in a bit of topical irony, by college admissions scandal celebrity Felicity Huffman — and her elastic treatment for evidence.
The second half is more poetical and free-floating, with older actors replacing younger ones as the five. (Ethan Herisse, Asante Blackk, Marquis Rodriguez and Caleel Harris make up the younger cast; Chris Chalk, Justin Cunningham, Jovan Adepo, Freddy Miyares the older, with Jharrel Jerome playing Wise throughout. All are exceptional.) Episode 3 looks at them in prison, but mostly just emerged from it, as they return to the world and family and ordinary people with different degrees of welcome and success.
This is a story about parents and children as much as it is about justice and race — the series has plenty of contemporary resonance on the latter account — and there is strong work from Niecy Nash, John Leguizamo, Aunjanue Ellis and Michael Kenneth Williams among the older generation. The final episode focuses at length on Wise, the oldest of the boys, as he struggles to survive life in an adult prison and is unexpectedly presented the key that will clear their names.
Filtered through the layers of invention and manipulation that surround any dramatic work — original dialogue, acting choices, editing, camera angles and music, not to mention production design, costuming and makeup — the film inevitably amounts to a take on the truth, the theory of a case. (There are those, of course, including Fairstein, Trump and some detectives, who continue to stick to their version of events; we hear some do so here.) In that a docudrama makes a story out of raw facts, it is something like a trial itself. Choices are made — we see detectives constructing, changing and rehearsing the confessions the boys will commit to videotape — making concrete something some would characterize as disputed.
That is not to say “When They See Us” is factually incorrect. But any thought-provoking work of historical fiction or re-creation should send one back to sources, and “When They See Us” is perhaps best watched in tandem with the 2012 documentary “The Central Park Five,” directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns (on whose study “The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding” is based, and which merits reading in turn) and David McMahon. (DuVernay re-creates some scenes seen there.) As is often the case in historical drama, “When They See Us” ends with footage of the people whose story it’s just told; but it’s a different experience seeing and hearing them speak for themselves. They are powerful.
‘When They See Us’
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd