Transcript, Web links and Credits below.
In 1989, we didn’t have Netflix. Ava Duvernay was just 17 years old. We didn’t have Twitter. We didn’t have podcasts. We didn’t have The North Star or The Breakdown. And as New York City wrongfully arrested, charged, and convicted 5 young boys (later known as the Central Park 5) for a brutal rape and assault that they had absolutely nothing to do with, so many of the tools that we have today to fight back with just didn’t exist.
We have them now. And today I want to tell you how I think we should use them. I hope you watch “When They See Us” on Netflix – then join our efforts to continue calling for justice for the Central Park 5. It’s never too late to fight for what’s right. And people need to know that when you do us wrong, we won’t go quietly.
Let’s dig in.
This is Shaun King and you are listening to (The Breakdown)!
In 1989, I was just 10 years old and was growing up in the Deep South. A thousand miles north of me, young boys who were barely older than me– just babies– were about to face the racist nexus of America’s white power structure. It would chew them up and spit them out.
A few documentaries have been filmed about these young boys and the injustices they faced, but for the first time, a well-funded, well-crafted dramatic mini-series of their stories, of their pain, of their oppression and survival was just released. It’s called “When They See Us.” And it’s on Netflix right now. I’d strongly recommend that you watch it and learn. It’s painful, but it’s also so beautiful because Ava Duvernay has told the story with the color, the lighting, the character, the nuance, the culture, the depth, the pain, the grief, and the seriousness it deserves. She gets the little things right. And it’s almost as if she has found a way to take us back in time. The acting, the cinematography, the script, the story – they’re all perfect. And for every second of this four-part series you get the feeling that every moment was done with great care.
Normally, when our are stories told, and I’m thinking of Cry Freedom, the movie starring Denzel as Steve Biko, the South African intellectual and freedom fighter, or even Amistad, or even the movie Glory about the 54th regiment in the Civil War – most movies told about us – are often told through the lens of a sympathetic white character. So Cry Freedom, instead of being about Steve Biko was really about a white journalist who covered him, or Amistad, instead of really telling the stories of the enslaved Africans who revolted, tells the story through the lens of the white people who defended them.
But not “When They See Us.” Ava Duvernay has told this story through the lens of the children, of their parents, of their families. And it’s wild to say this, but that’s new. It’s part of the power of Netflix, where they are not lording over every detail of how the script is written, worried about white fragility, or hoping white people will pay to come see it – that has changed.
And she gets the space to tell the story the way it deserves to be told. And in doing so, something has happened. To illustrate what I am about to break down, I want to first play a 2014 standup clip of the comedian Hannibal Buress. He was in a random club, and the clip is grainy and hard to see, but he starts telling a joke about Bill Cosby. First he mentions how smug Cosby is to the younger generation of Black folk, then Burress takes his bit in a different direction that shocks the audience.
And the clip went super viral – because Hannibal Buress, while casually telling a joke about Cosby, really became the first person in pop culture to confront Cosby over the dozens of sexual assault allegations that were hanging over his head.
Let me play the clip.
(Insert Buress Clip)
Now that was 5 years ago, and it’s hard to believe, but when Buress told that joke, Cosby hadn’t been to trial, hadn’t been to jail, and the stories of the 50+ women who had accused him of sexual assault had not even been covered.
See Cosby had even admitted in some of his standup from the 70s that he was using date rape drugs, but again, that was pre-Twitter. And women across the years had accused him of sexual assault, but again, it was a different era where a few major newspapers and tv stations controlled what made the news. And suddenly, one standup routine from Hannibal Buress blew the lid off the issue.
And that’s what Ava Duvernay has done with this Netflix series on the Central Park 5. People knew in the 80s that police and prosecutors in Manhattan railroaded these young boys. And that their confessions were coerced, and even beaten out of them. But that knowledge was gained in a different generation– without the benefit of it being told the way Ava was able to tell it.
And so today, I have one ACTION STEP for you. Then tomorrow I’m going to come back with part 2.
ACTION STEP MUSIC
I need you to go ahead and watch “When They See Us” on Netflix. It’s essential for what I am going to ask you to do this week, OK?
Today, I am about to head to a protest related to the corrupt prosecutors in this case, and tomorrow I’ll tell you all about it and tell you how you can join me.
Thank you all for making it all the way through this episode of The Breakdown!
If you haven’t already subscribed to our podcast, we’ll be right back here every single weekday, breaking down important news stories and issues, and we’d love for you to subscribe on your favorite podcast apps like Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Please share this podcast with your friends and family. Our next goal is to get to 100,000 subscribers and we won’t get there without you! Have you left a review yet? On Apple Podcasts we now have nearly 8,000 5 star reviews, but we’re aiming for 10,000 – so we still want to hear from you so please leave your best review when you get time.
Thank you so much to the nearly 30,000 founding members of The North Star whose generosity even makes this podcast possible. Love y’all and appreciate you so much.
If you love this podcast and want to support our work – or want to see the show notes and transcript for each episode – we’d love it if you considered becoming a founding member of our community at TheNorthStar.com. There we not only have our podcasts, but hundreds of original articles and stories and commentaries from some of the leading scholars and thinkers and journalists in the world.
Lastly, a shout out to our Associate Producer Lyssandra and Podcasting Director and Senior Producer, Willis, for their hard work on this and every episode.
Take care everybody.
Produced by Willis Polk II
Extra Production by Christian “Idrys” Shannon
Additional Instrumentation by Christian “Idrys” Shannon & Lance “Lance Fury” Powlis
Additional Engineering by Amond “AJ” Jackson for Salem Psalms Library
Additional Vocals by Garnett “Natti” Bush & Jason Coffey
Scratches by Kenny “DJ FlipFlop” Vanderberg