It’s a vast understatement at this point to say that Ava Duvernay’s miniseries on the five boys now known as the Exonerated Five is a traumatic viewing experience. For full disclosure, I probably would not have been able to finish the show if I weren’t assigned to write a reaction to it. As I’ve mentioned before, seeing the way the boys were coerced into confessions, the abuse they suffered at the hands of detectives, the way their parents and siblings suffered, the way Korey was brought to the brink of death, was so emotionally taxing that I was sweating by the time Nipsey Hussle’s music played as the end credits rolled. There’s been a lot of talk regarding Black folks watching the show in spite of the trauma and our obligation to support this masterpiece.
While “When They See Us” is Ava’s masterwork and the way she humanized five boys and their families was such an act of service and love, I can’t at all shame or blame any Black person who simply doesn’t want to watch or can’t handle the emotional intensity and trauma from the show. There’s so much of it that hits so close to home – the fact police can yank up our children in the dead of night, the helplessness we feel when our boys and girls are locked up, the injustice of the prison industrial complex – that asking anyone to live or re-live these experiences on a screen can be too much to ask. Also, for so many Black people, we know these stories intimately because we’ve lived them. Part of the PTSD of being Black in America means the emotions of seeing “When They See Us” are raw as hell.
But the show is important. And it’s especially important as a revelation for those who don’t know about the experiences of incarcerated Black folks firsthand. And doubly important for those in society with the means and power to sympathize and affect change. Namely, white people.
“When They See Us” is as clear a display of the how Black people get trapped in a carceral system that ruins our lives without us even having to come close to committing a crime. The show is as passionate a plea for prison reform – even prison abolishment – as any we’ve seen in fiction. Even if abolishment is a bridge too far for some, at least having more of an understanding of the circumstances leading to someone being labeled a convicted felon and the toll it takes on his or her life can open some minds up to understanding.
That’s why this is must-watch stuff for white people. I’ve seen a lot of white peers talk about how terrifying the (also brilliant) Chernobyl series has been to watch, while few have mentioned the real-life terror of “When They See Us.” I get it. Something like Chernobyl can happen to white people. On the other hand, white folks will go their whole lives without having to worry about what happened to the Exonerated Five happening to them. Which makes their viewership of the show even more important. They need to understand.
With that said, it’s not Black folks’ responsibility to make white people empathize with us or teach them about what we go through. So it’s on white folks to make their white peers watch “When They See Us.” Have watch parties. Set up discussions. Encourage further reading. Set up your parents’ Netflix accounts so they can watch. Do something. In 2019, ignorance about what marginalized people go through is a choice. There are far too many resources for white people to have a better understanding of the lives people of color have to live in America. “When They See Us” is one of those resources. Use it and think about what you can do to help make sure five more boys don’t get trapped in a prison system that shouldn’t even exist.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.