Chester Discusses Mini-Series About 1989 Central Park Jogger Case
When They See Us, the much talked about Netflix four part mini-series based on events of the 1989 Central Park jogger case and explores the lives of the families of the five male suspects who were prosecuted in 1990 on charges related to the rape and assault of a woman in Central Park, New York City, the year before.
Two Chester Housing Authority community groups, ‘Women’s Circle’ and ‘Fathers are Talking’ talked about it even more on Wednesday night, July 11 with about 25 others of all ages exploring aspects of the show in a unique and engaging community conversation which centered around the challenges of racism and social justice.
There wasn’t much of an agenda other than watching a few clips, listening to reactions, and eating some great food prepared Amir’s Catering at their Red Brick Café in the William Penn Housing Development. It sort of reminded me of a book club discussion as everyone in the room contributed to the conversation.
But, unlike a book club where everyone reads the book, not everyone watched When They See Us which became one of the important discussion points. Why have folks avoided watching the show? Why have folks who started watching it turned it off before completing it? As interesting as those questions are, it was even more interesting to learn that not having seen the show didn’t distract from discussing the show.
The two teenage sons of Chester resident Ulysses Slaughter were tasked with leading the discussion thanks to their closeness in age to the Central Park Five members. It gave them an excellent opportunity to get experience standing before a room of mostly adults to do what most of us fear most, speaking in front of a others in public. If they had butterflies in the stomach to start, they embraced the role and eased into it flawlessly as perfect hosts.
One of the biggest discussion points was trying to uncover why so many people refuse to watch the show. Social media has been abuzz since the day the show was released on Netflix with people saying how difficult it would be to watch, listing one excuse after the other, like how it is too much to process; how they’re not ready to see it; and how it would hurt too much to watch.
Personally, I haven’t watched it, but for none of those reasons. My excuse? I’m not an early adopter, and I don’t watch much TV because it puts me to sleep. There aren’t too many shows over a half hour that I don’t have to watch several times just to finish – thank God for the DVR. And, the early adopter characteristic has to do with not being influenced by doing stuff just because it’s new. I’m not the guy in the movie theater on opening weekend. I don’t buy the new car. I purchased my first new home five years ago and will never do that again. My technology is pretty well tested before I purchase it. My sneakers aren’t the latest and greatest. I had just learned the Electric Slide right about the time everyone else was doing the Wobble.
I tried on several occasions to finish the 4-episodes of When They See Us before attending the event, but I can’t stay awake. It was interesting hearing other people’s excuses for not watching the show. The one I remember most is the guy saying he couldn’t get through half of the 1st episode because it reminded him too much of the experiences he had with cops and the justice system. He equated it to PTSD. That was unexpected to hear, but I understand how he feels.
I absolutely can’t understand the extreme opposition many Black people have to watching this show. I think I know Black people pretty well and they are huge consumers of crime shows. I know tons of Black folks who enjoy crime shows old and new, TV and movies, dramas and real life, documentaries and investigative reports like NCIS, Law and Order, NYPD, First 48, Making a Murderer, Dateline, Cops, Oz, and The Wire..
For a moment the room became a support group for those claiming they can’t watch When They See Us because it hurts too much, or they have to be in a better place to process it, or their nerves are bad and have to ease into it. Thankfully, therapy was rendered with statements like…
Deal with your cowardness.
Get over it. Confront it.
Prevent it from happening again by teaching people how to deal with these situations.
We need to learn how we see ourselves.
And my favorite…
Learn from it because every day we avoid trouble is another day of privilege we get to enjoy.
Another of my favorite discussion topics was getting the room to share the scene which was most difficult to watch. There were a couple scenes people mentioned from the episode I had seen: 1) When the dad made his son confess, and 2) How the cops took the liberty of interrogating those kids with no adult in the room.
My other favorite topic was, which of the Central Park Five characters affected us the most. Overwhelmingly, it was Korey Wise. He was the oldest at 16 when arrested, and served the most time in jail being charged as an adult. All the injustices were thrown his way and many found it hard to watch his ordeal play out on screen.
I shared with the group the reason the series may be so hard for me to watch: filmmaker Ava DuVernay. I’ve come to realize that although I don’t watch a lot of video content, when I do, I’m consumed by the art form more than the story. I pay way too much attention to camera angles, color, focus, music, costumes, lighting, sound, and all that stuff. Ever since I saw the movie ‘Selma’ by DuVernay, a movie I didn’t especially like, I really walked away loving what I saw on the screen more than anything I’ve seen in a long time. Her other works like ‘13th’ transformed a documentary into a work of art to me. And as much as I didn’t like ‘Queen Sugar,’ I could watch it on mute all day because of the beauty.
DuVernay presents the Central Park Five story like no one else can. It looks like you’re watching an old movie with many dark scenes and a visual departure from the sharp, bright, focused TV we’ve become accustomed to in this high definition world. The costumes, hair styles, music, and other period elements, along with good writing and great acting makes this 30-year-old story seem like it only happened yesterday. The teen actors were convincing, and the professionals I recognize like Blair Underwood, Michael K. Williams, John Leguizamo, Niecy Nash along with the cast of less-knowns were perfect in delivering the story.
Overall, the 90-minute discussion was full of insightful opinion, observation, anger, and memories. I feel it met the goal of opening discussion and dialogue among those gathered to incorporate the arts into a solutions based forum of ideas and opinion.
It went so well that the organizers, on the spot, decided it’s probably worth a Part 2, so look for a second session on discussing When They See Us in the fall as those in attendance promised to reach out to young people to join the conversation next time.
Here’s a great comment on the post appearing on the Chester Matters blog from reader Pauline Thompson:
It was an awesome event and great to see so many people passionate about very difficult topics: the injustices of the criminal ‘justice’ system, police brutality, racism and rape. I also thought the discussions around why or why not people have or have not watched the show were very interesting as were the reactions from others about those reasons. One woman shared her very troubling experiences as a young person and the ongoing difficulties she has when reminded of those experiences. Her courage in sharing that was admirable as was her own insight into how she knew this experience would impact her emotions and behavior and relationships in the coming days. That night, I didn’t share her courage in disclosing the personal details of my own hesitation to watch the show, but I can tell you now (a few days later) that even the very short, first clip from the show that was shown, with the harsh , ugly details of rape described by a police officer in his interrogation of one of the boys, was incredibly difficult for me. As a rape survivor, I never know when a comment, a visual, a story, will set me in a tailspin. I know that I chewed the hell out of my lip that night and struggled to breathe, and that I found it difficult to even have a conversation with my husband afterwards as I withdrew into myself. While it might be easy for someone to say ‘Get over it!’ ‘Deal with your cowardness’, as you described above, I am reminded of a saying: ‘Don’t judge me until you have walked a mile in my shoes’. When we respond to others with curiosity, compassion and kindness, in every little way, we start to make the world a much better place for everyone. So when a number of participants indicated their hesitations to watch the show, we can be curious as to why, and also acknowledge that people care and are informed about important issues. I, and everyone else, doesn’t have to watch a show to prove that. I applaud everyone who came out the other night, whether they watched the show or not, and the courage they all had to engage in the conversation. I look forward to Part 2 and hope that even more people will come.