DuVernay's four-part miniseries series on the Central Park jogger case and the five juveniles -- Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray and Korey Wise -- who were falsely accused "isn’t particularly interested in reinvestigating this case, or even in delving into the circumstances that led up to it," says Sophie Gilbert. Her motivation, rather, is to delineate five individuals whose identities were erased and rewritten before they’d even had the chance to finish eighth grade. This is a work that wants viewers to see these people, and the fullness of their humanity, above everything else. What this means is a miniseries that’s both profoundly rich and extraordinarily hard to watch. There’s barely time to process the characters before they’re plunged headfirst into a nightmare, a setup that lets viewers experience some of their spiraling confusion." Gilbert adds: "The tremendous dexterity of the five actors cast as the teenagers, and the emotional texture written into the story, makes the first episode heartrending. It doesn’t get easier. The second captures the trial; the third, which brings in four older actors to play the characters as adults (Jerome does double duty as Korey), tracks the experiences of Kevin, Antron, Yusef, and Raymond in juvenile detention, and their difficulties adjusting to release. But the fourth, which runs nearly 90 minutes long and portrays 16-year-old Korey’s path into an adult prison and the strange events that led to the entire group’s exoneration, is so enraging and brutal to watch that it almost threatens to lose viewers entirely. What makes it vital, though, is Jerome’s performance as a kid growing up in front of our eyes, under the most outrageous circumstances."
When They See Us is a new kind of Must-See TV: Ava DuVernay's four-part miniseries is "impassioned, worthy, and at times very moving," says Willa Paskin. "It is also regularly excruciating. A particularly pointed example of a new kind of Must-See TV, When They See Us appeals not to our pleasure centers but to our higher minds, our civic responsibility, our duty to watch for the greater good. It challenges TV’s mandate to be fun: Does it really have to be? Might it entertain us—or educate or challenge us—in more complicated ways? We already have a category of movies that we expect to artfully, if painfully edify—think of 12 Years a Slave, or Schindler’s List—but we’re not acculturated to it on television."
When They See Us goes to great lengths to avoid saying "Central Park 5": "Over four installments, none longer than 87 minutes, When They See Us is a rigorous attempt to chronicle an epic legal failure and to help restore a sense of the men as individuals, rather than faceless members of a wrongfully accused collective," says Daniel Fienberg. "DuVernay, director and co-writer of every episode, approaches their story in ways that avoid typical triumph-over-adversity narrative tropes. She sometimes prioritizes the intellectual over the emotional or intentionally leaves big gaps in time and perspective. But her choices never feel haphazard. The material mines profound outrage, and the note-perfect ensemble lends it heart."
DuVernay explains how she approached telling the story from the perspective of the five men: "I started just speaking with the men first. That was my first way in. And from there I folded in all of the court transcripts, different records and files that we were able to get a hold of through public means or private transfer. We then read every single stitch of press coverage to really get an understanding of the ways in which this was being reported, to understand the propaganda around this case. You know, there was a study done that 89 percent of the articles that were written at the time, by the New York papers, didn’t even use the word 'alleged.' I also talked with academics to get underneath the state of New York City at the time. What were the political motivations? But it always came back to the men and then their families. Over a four-year period, it was just exhaustive. Interviews, but sometimes just spending time. Lunches, dinners, just getting to know them. Sometimes it’s the little things more than just the core stories."