Ava DuVernay’s WHEN THEY SEE US is an emotionally heavy story that must be seen

Have the tissues ready. It may be tough to watch… but it’s necessary.

Short-form television is all the craze nowadays, and it seems like the shorter television gets, the better it is. Condensing a story down to four-five episodes and having it all sit under five hours seems to mostly eliminate any dragging and drastic pacing issues. It’s a form that seems to allow a series to retain a certain level of quality for its entire duration.

When They See Us is the perfect example of this; tight, quality storytelling that grabs you in the opening minutes and will not let you go until the final credits roll. The miniseries follows the harrowing true story of five black and hispanic teenagers falsely accused of a rape in New York City’s Central Park.

When They See Us is most certainly not an easy watch. It’s not something you’d throw on to relax after a hard day at work. It’s a series centred around very heavy themes and content covering serious social issues that are still shockingly relevant today, 30 years later. It’s not the most pleasant and uplifting thing to see, but it needs to be seen, and it is incredible. This is a series driven almost entirely by emotion. Every scene, every moment, is designed to evoke a specific emotion in the audience to keep you hooked and all-in on this captivating story.

Right from the first episode this series evokes a sense of fear, sadness, dread, and above all else; anger, to have you wholly invested in this story that most people won’t have even heard of prior to starting it. With every detail that emerges and every shocking scene that unfolds, the tension and emotional weight of this series increases exponentially with surprises left and right. The first two episodes go hand-in-hand, they build on each-other, and tell one portion of the story so incredibly well you’ll be emotionally exhausted before you even make it to that half-way point.

The latter half of this story takes a different approach, adopts a different pace, a slightly different lens, and tells its story in a way that compliments the first two episodes brilliantly. It all ties together in what is a deeply emotional story and a real eye-opener for some issues that exist in society and in the justice system. As a whole, the latter two episodes may not be as strong and impactful as the first two however they are strong and important in their own way which makes them still emotionally tough to take in.

Ava DuVernay (Selma, 2014) is an immensely talented writer/directer and her work here should have her up for an Emmy for writing and/or directing. Her efforts to tell this story in such an impactful and confronting manner show her understanding of how important this story is and how best to convey it to a new audience. The directing is exquisite and the intensity in some of the scenes is so strong it’s uncomfortable to watch just from the atmosphere she creates. The dialogue is also very well written and feels as authentic and biographical as it can be.

The way she depicts the character relationships on-screen is quite possibly the strongest aspect of the series. You really feel the connections each of these kids shares with their parents and with each-other in every moment. The moments the kids share with their parents take up quite a bit of the runtime and are some of the most emotional moments in the series. They depict the strength and importance of that bond kids share with their parents and how crucial it is to never lose sight of that. It’s a fantastic message to be putting at the forefront of a story where there is also so much distressing content being covered.

The performances in here, from the lead cast to the supporting characters are all brilliant in their own ways. Young leads Asante Blackk (Kevin Richardson), Caleel Harris (Antron McCray), Ethan Herisse (Yusef Salaam), Jharrel Jarome (Korey Wise), and Marquis Rodriguez (Raymond Santana) put in astounding, emotional performances that draw all attention through every scene they’re in. As young as each of these actors are and with as little experience as they have, what they manage to do with their characters is gripping and only means good things for their futures.

There is a long list of supporting performances who make major contributions to the story as well as to the emotional weight of the series. Vera Farmiga (Elizabeth Lederer), Felicity Huffman (Linda Fairstein), John Leguizamo (Raymond Santana Sr.), Niecy Nash (Delores Wise), and Michael Kenneth Williams (Bobby McCray) are just some of the big names in limited roles who have a strong presence in this story. They all deliver stellar performances and each have scenes in which they completely steal the show, enhancing the effectiveness of the emotional storytelling.

Ava DuVernay places a large amount of focus on the facts and presenting this story as authentically as possible to illustrate the importance of such an event and try prevent something like this ever happening again. This is a must-watch series where as a citizen of this planet it’s something that you should see and spread as much as possible. It’s a tight, contained story that will have you invested from the first minute and make you not want to exit Netflix until it’s done.

9.3/10

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