After watching Ava DuVernay’s powerful When They See Us about the exonerated 5 and the crime they were framed for, I’m left with a question — one I’ve been thinking about a lot more often; whom exactly is the audience for work based on marginalized trauma?
The story of Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Korey Wise is many things. One it’s a necessary history lesson, a reminder of reality, a statement to racial injustice, hope, and…there’s not enough words to describe.
I’ll get straight to the point, if you aren’t Black and Brown, you’ll never completely understand how this series strikes to the heart. This is an experience unique to us that we are reminded of daily. This isn’t really my focus for this piece. It’s about if we should interact with work based on the painfully realities we are aware of.
When it comes to these stories; especially those created by marginalized people about our own trauma — whom are they meant for exactly?
I have multiple thoughts on that matter but mostly believe they are meant specifically for the majority. Those whom are demographically and statistically responsible for the injustices of these painful story lines. Because again, these serve to speak about history, reality, and cold truths of our society.
That being said I also lament something a friend shared:
The people that should be watching this won’t see it.
He zeroed in on another dynamic at play with trauma pieces. You’ll often see; on social media, news, and word of mouth, etc that people of said identities are the main conversation drivers in relation to these works. When They See Us has a hashtag and you will see countless Black & Brown people have spoken/are speaking about it. Yes, you will see input from white viewers but they are a small minority. For personal reference, barely seen any white mutuals taken it upon themselves to watch the series or speak on it.
It’s a reality that parallels how most racial injustices continue; a lack of acknowledgement, accountability, an assumption they aren’t a part of the problem, and so forth.
We; whom are shades of Black and Brown are all too familiar with our societal, political, and economic realities. So that brings me to another conversation that you may have seen regarding the series and other work like it.
Marginalized people do not need be reminded of their struggles. That is a right we have and should express whenever we wish. The criticism of “aren’t we more than our trauma?” is fair. So even if we are the intended audience, we will always have that choice.
So, I’ve asked myself numerous times should I watch this? Will the wave of emotions I’ll experience again about our reality be worth it? I wasn’t explicitly familiar with the story of the exonerated five’s story. I know that Ava is fully aware of all these questions and frustration about marginalized trauma and had a larger societal purpose in mind. So I decided to watch the entire 4 hour series last week Saturday.
When watching part 1 of When They See Us, you’ll see how systemic racial injustice works from the police. It was…is a well-oiled machine. Then prosecutor Linda Fairstein, saw 2 completely unrelated incidents. However she saw a number of Black and Brown youths — her targets. Despite the facts, the lack of evidence, she created a lie because some had to take the fall. Looking at their skintones, clearly they’re criminals.
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As the film made clear repeatedly, she and her predominately white colleagues/coworkers had no issues with coercing these children into confessions. At times, they were all too happy to create the narrative of their involvement to a horrendous crime they never committed.
In part 2, we see the court trials, glimpses of the community, and the families of the five. It starts with Raymond grandmother (& dad) expressing concern for his life as they know he’s fully innocent. Understandably coping with this is incredibly difficult. We also see how the predatory media plays a part in a case’s narrative. Labeling them, feeding into stereotypes in 1989 — which is still a regular practice in 2019.
What’s frustrating and familiar is how the legal system is an active participant for injustice. The lead prosecutor is fully aware that the children can’t be involved with no evidence. However again via a conversation with Linda Fairstein, someone has to be held responsible. So she weaponized the testimony of the victim and this proves highly effective. Prior to this point, the trials were in their favor. Unfortunately, the jury found them all guilty and thus their lives were stolen.
Part 3 is the aftermath of what happens after they are released. We see all but Korey try to re-assimilate back to life. Their displacement and disorientation barely describes what we’re seeing on screen. There’s a scene where Yusef is home, there’s a party going on for him. However he’s not there at all — you see it on his face, in his mannerisms, in his eyes. All of them have similar experiences.
We get reminded what life is like for ex con’s. You have parole officers to answer to forever. You have a set time when you’re allowed to be out in public. The societal label of ex-convict, which amplifies itself when searching for work. Then there’s repairing/building of any personal relationships. Life for ex-convicts is utterly frustrating. More to the point, this humanizes their lives for people whom don’t acknowledge them as people. Not to mention, they are well known for a crime they didn’t commit.
Through Raymond Jr’s experience we see an earnest attempt at trying to do things the way society wants. However, what society “wants” us to do doesn’t work for everyone. As he tried ]nd saw life literally just pass him by, he resorts to selling drugs. They say life is about choices, what choices were available to him? Keep trying to find work while being perpetually broke and being viewed as a criminal by your extended family? Or find an income and try to build a life with your partner? And for this choice he eventually finds himself back in jail. Raymond had no real choice.
Part 4, is the perhaps the most emotional part of the series focusing on Korey Wise’s story. At 16, he was just trying to be a friend to Yusef and accompanied him as the police round up Black and Brown boys. At his age, Korey was sent to the adult prison system and reminded until age 29.
Through Jharrel Jerome, we see what is possibly the most difficult story telling (& best acting) I’ve seen to date. We see him suffer at the hands of the American prison system. To say Korey suffered physically and mentally doesn’t even capture his experience. At each junction, things seem to get worse for him. For survival he willingly asks to be placed in solitary confinement. We then see him grasp at trying to maintain his mind. Through the help of a prison guard he survives this difficult time. Because someone reminded that a human being deserve to be treated as such.
As said before, for him things just keep getting worse. While in prison he finds out his only sister was murdered. We see how crucial Marci was to him in life. Unfortunately, we also see how she was cast out of home by their mother for being a trans woman. This is a painfully reminder, that injustices continue to happen to Black trans women. My attention is being draw to these cases by the Black and LGBTQIA community. I found myself crying at these scenes.
After, this we see a change in Korey’s mother as she’s found religion and faith. As Korey wants to lessen the burden on his mother, he asks for a prison transfer. Yet, want happens is that he is relocated to a prison even further away.
Despite everything Korey Wise has experienced he still maintained hope and faith. His life was ripped away from him again for being Black, let’s not forget that. He lived through the prison system for nearly half his life at that point. Yet, here he is. It’s incredible, rage inducing, sad like I can’t even describe. I can’t explain how I feel exactly. In fact, I really don’t care to do so, everyone Black and Brown already knows.
What I will say is that I cried 6(7?) times throughout this series. I’m reminded that personally, I have a purpose and direction with my activism. Which extends far beyond I don’t want this to happen to me. I will let stories, facts, and history serve as the point against system oppression and be a part of my motivations. This is also a reminder that the criminal justice system has to be reformed — we have to remember their humanity. This is the work I choose to do. I’m merely a Black man with a blog.
Now to return to the conversation of intended audience. Yes, I still believe work based on marginalized trauma isn’t meant for us. We have a right to express that they can’t and shouldn’t take part in it’s consumption. Maybe the notion of an intended audience in these cases maybe the wrong way to look at this. Perhaps ultimately, it maybe out of the hands of the creator.
I think the other way to view this is the effect this work based upon painful histories will have on society. Since its become available on Netflix, there has been traction on social media to deplatform Linda Fairstein for her role with case against the five — To date this has been working.
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So, it’s OK if you don’t want to see or read about the trauma of the exonerated 5 via When They See Us. The series has been doing the work it was intended to do since the week of it’s release.
I still can’t quite explain how I feel after watching but hopefully I can help society stop stories like Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Korey Wise from repeating. Because they don’t have closure after all this time. No amount of money can heal that trauma. We…or rather those of us whom recognize these injustices owe it to them and ourselves to stop them.