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‘When They See Us’ Is an Ongoing Reminder of How Our Men Have Been Left Behind

On May 31, Netflix premiered a highly anticipated docuseries detailing the story of five young Black and Latinx men who were wrongfully convicted of raping a young, white woman in the spring of 1989. When They See Us, directed by Ava Duvernay (who also directed Selma, A Wrinkle in Time, and Netflix’s 13th) grips viewers in a four-plus hour chokehold — simulating the suffocating experience we can only imagine black and brown men experience in this country.

Viewers watch as the story of the boys, known as the Central Park 5 (and now, the Exonerated 5) live through manipulation, wrongful conviction, vilification, traumatization and more as a result of the New York City Police Department leaping to the conclusion that they gang-raped a young woman one early Spring evening. The reality: they were in the park at the same time experiencing true “black boy joy” at best and being rowdy teenaged boys at worst. Still, that joy — mistaken by the police for criminal activity — would ultimately cost the boys between six and thirteen years in prison.

On Wednesday night, Oprah Winfrey enveloped the movie’s actors and the now-exonerated adult men in gentle, yet probing questions about their experience re-enacting and living the worst-case-scenario atrocities that the men experienced. What viewers watched, as the actors and real-life heroes tried to verbalize their experiences, felt like live trauma; there was nothing post-traumatic about it, the men are very much still living the real nightmare of being wrongfully accused, hated, abused, and ultimately, discarded without so much as an apology (they highlighted how the $41M settlement they received did not go very far after splitting, taxes, and fees). The men and the actors that played them visibly sobbed, exhibiting the present yet invisible wounds they continue to wear day after day — over 15 years after the men were exonerated.

The poignant made-for-television moment was the aftershock to an already jarring emotional docuseries. It reflected one truth: our men are not always going to be okay. Not now, not when trauma takes place, and not even years after the trauma. While not every black or brown man carries the scars of the Exonerated 5, many carry scars of being ostracized from society in other ways. Whether it be from the government’s refusal to reintegrate them into society — blocking their voting rights and ability to get jobs — or from the alarming lack of therapy and mental health treatment available to them, we are not doing enough to heal the ongoing traumas and battle wounds of Black and Latinx men.

Media has reflected their pain to us all year — from movies, documentaries, and reports about the deranged slashings of a 15-year-old Bronx boy on a street corner, to the untimely shooting death of Nipsey Hussle, to the harrowing story of the Exonerated 5. Yet, too few mainstream platforms reflect long-term solutions to rebuild and heal these men. It seems they are constantly living and watching a nightmare.

As the lights went down on set, and the Exonerated 5 took a moment away from the cameras and storytelling, we are fortunate to have caught a glimpse of the one thing that continues to drive the spirit of these men through it all: spirit, heart, and a will to keep going.