Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” (2016) and now her limited series out today, “When They See Us”, may as well be the first two titles in a trilogy on the history and legacy of racial injustice in the United States. The completion to a potential triptych of these Netflix originals could bring the themes tackled in the first two directly into the present day – a time when revisionist slogans like “Make America Great Again” can win elections, as the once promise of a post-racially harmonious America that many had the audacity to hope for is shattered.
Exploring the intersection of race and justice in the United States from a historical perspective, “13th” (referring to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution) makes a direct connection between slavery and mass incarceration, serving as a bridge between the ignored harsh truths uncovered in Sam Pollard’s eye-opening 2012 feature documentary “Slavery By Another Name” and Angela Davis’ incendiary 1997 missive, “The Prison Industrial Complex.”
Pollard’s film is based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s literary exposé on what he dubbed an “Age of Neo-slavery” that thrived from the aftermath of the Civil War, and the passing of the 13th amendment which abolished slavery in the United States; Davis’ “Prison Industrial Complex,” takes on a faulty U.S. legal structure, with prison systems that have grown at a rate unparalleled in history, creating what is effectively a modernized slave labor system that gives private prisons political influence and huge profits to businesses that supply goods and services to prison agencies.
Bridging both works, “13th” paints a devastating picture of the unsightly and horrific practices that kept hundreds of thousands of black Americans enslaved for many decades, detailing the conspiracy by southern whites after the Civil War who manipulated a morally corrupt judicial system (in part due to the exploitation of a single clause in the 13th Amendment). Legally free after Emancipation, African-Americans were forced back into involuntary bondage to work in mines, quarries, lumber camps and urban factories – either as convicts based on extremely tenuous charges, or in repayment of nebulous forms of never-ending debt.
The documentary serves as an eye-opening account of a significant yet rarely talked about multi-decade chapter of American history during which blacks were subject to racial degradation, the effects of which still very much reverberate today.
125 years later, the so-called “Central Park Five” (Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana Jr.), whose stories are illuminated in “When They See Us,” were victims of a similar kind of institutional manipulation within a morally bankrupt system. There was an immediate, deliberate scheme conjured up and blisteringly implemented by New York City’s criminal justice apparatus to ensure that the crime was solved swiftly, regardless of evidence, and these five boys were mere unwitting pawns in service of that end.
Convicted long before the trial by a city blinded by fear and, equally, weighed with racial conflict, they were the children of Reagan’s “welfare queens” in the early 1980s, who became “wilding” youth later in the decade, and eventually Hillary Clinton’s “super-predators” in the early 1990s. These are all terms that belong to a library of racialized dog whistles that evoked moral panic, which justified President Bill Clinton’s 1996 Crime Bill that former Vice President Joe Biden helped write as a senator 25 years ago, and which, coincidentally, has been thrust back into the spotlight on the 2020 campaign trail, as Biden makes a run for the most powerful office in the land.
In much the same way that the country experienced a backlash against Emancipation and Reconstruction 150 years ago, especially in the South, all in an effort to keep African Americans in bondage, the election of Donald Trump – coincidentally the most vocal public figure to speak out against the Central Park Five – was seen by pundits as a backlash by white America against the racial progress that Obama’s election seemed to promise.
As the old adage says, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And when it comes to the American criminal justice system, the specifics of each instance may change, but the dangerous rush to judgment in racially-charged cases remains constant, impeding genuine racial progress.
In 2002, all convictions against the five men were dismissed due to new evidence that indicated a previously convicted murderer-rapist was the culprit. A year later, a multi-million-dollar federal lawsuit was filed by the five men for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination and emotional distress – a case that should have been a slam-dunk. But a decade would pass as the five young men continued to wait for justice to serve them – the same justice that rushed to convict them. Finally, in 2014, the case was settled for a reported $41 million.
“When They See Us” is an exposé and affirmation of what many already consider to be an unbalanced scale of justice in this country. Like “Slavery By Another Name” and Ken Burns’ excellent 2012 documentary “The Central Park Five” before it, the Netflix series informs and infuriates.
In each case, as in all other legalized forms of oppression that can collectively be filed under the heading “Living While Black in America,” the roots of black America’s healthy distrust of the criminal justice system are very-well illuminated and particularly timely to revisit in light of current events, challenging the deeply warped belief that black people tend toward lawlessness, which D. W. Griffith expressly stated in “The Birth of a Nation” (1915).
The Central Park Five tragedy reminds America of how much it struggles to come to terms with its original sin: race. One only need to look at history to understand that their story is not unique.