I tried to watch “When They See Us.” I couldn’t even get past the trailer.
As scenes from director Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix miniseries about the Central Park Five flashed across my screen, I felt sick. Maybe it was the all-too familiar images of young black men in police custody and on trial. Maybe it was the parade of weeping mothers and anguished fathers.
Or maybe it was my own memories of negative encounters with the police.
I remember what’s it’s like to be a young black man on the other end of a police officer’s suspicious stare. And I’ve got a teenage son now. Sadly I know he’ll endure the same treatment.
Watching the trailer brought all this to the surface.
Why do some TV shows and movies generate such emotions in us? David Ewoldsen, a professor of media and information at Michigan State University, told me it’s because consuming a story through a visual medium is a very particular mode of engagement.
“One of our motivations for engaging in stories is to get away from ordinary life,” Ewoldsen said. But the sobering world of “When They See Us” – decades old but still very real to many African Americans in 2019 – doesn’t afford us that respite.
“It’s not an escape from our everyday stresses,” Ewoldsen said. “We have a tendency, when watching TV or film, to put ourselves in it.”
It could have been me … or my son
“When They See Us” is about one of the great injustices in modern American history. It’s the true story of Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana, five teenagers of color who were convicted of raping, beating and leaving a white female jogger for dead in New York City’s Central Park in 1989.
Police coerced false confessions from the teens, who were convicted despite no direct evidence tying them to the crime. They spent years in prison before a serial rapist confessed to raping the jogger. DNA evidence exonerated them and their convictions were vacated in 2002. The case has became a flashpoint in the fight against systematic racism in the justice system.
What gets to me – no, what outrages me – is how much things haven’t changed much since. With stunning regularity we learn of black men who are exonerated too late of crimes they didn’t commit. We’ve seen encounters between black men and police turn unnecessarily deadly. Think of Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Or Terence Crutcher. If they had been white, they’d probably still be with us today.
I’m grateful that none of my encounters with police ended up with me dead or wrongfully jailed, but there have been some scary ones.
I particularly remember one that happened around the time the Central Park Five case was dominating the nation’s headlines. When I was a student at Arkansas State University, I was running late for my job at the school cafeteria one Saturday morning. As I half-walked, half-ran across campus, a police car pulled up and an officer blitzed out, hand on his gun. He demanded my ID because I “matched the description” of someone who had just committed a crime nearby. I handed him my driver’s license and he looked it over while eyeing my face.
“No, it’s not him,” he told someone on his radio, sounding almost disappointed. He shoved the license back into my hand and hopped back into his car without so much as a “sorry to bother you, sir.”
I wasn’t much older than the five kids arrested in that Central Park crime. Today I’m the father of two sons – including a 16-year-old, the same age as the oldest teen wrongfully charged in that case.
I often think back to that day. What if I didn’t have my license? Would he have taken me into custody? What would have happened to me then?
My story could have fit with countless recent tragic accounts of African Americans suffering violence at the hands of police.
I realize now that my reaction to “When They See Us” is tied up in those two viewpoints: I could have been one of the Central Park Five, and so could my son.
We crave escape, not real-world stress, in our entertainment
It’s not just me. Many other people of color are talking about how they can’t bring themselves to watch “When They See Us” or stopped watching partway through.
Some have even compared the reaction to “When They See Us” to the response many African Americans had to the TV miniseries “Roots,” which brought the horrors of slavery to millions of living rooms in 1977.
Ewoldsen, the film professor, told me human beings are hardwired to be moved by what we see on screen.
“We are a visual species,” he said. “We show incredibly fast reactions to visual images.”
And he is right when he says we can’t help but share the emotions of TV or movie characters who look like us.
As I watched the “When They See Us” trailer I imagined that I (or my son) was one of those teen boys, desperately trying to reason with cops hell-bent on throwing me in jail. And then I imagined I was one of their parents, trying my best to protect my son yet feeling increasingly helpless against the relentless power of the criminal justice system.
I’m not a big fan of the word “triggering,” but I think that’s what DuVernay’s miniseries is doing for a lot of black and brown people. Triggering memories of their own frightening encounters with police. Triggering memories of their sons and husbands who never made it home after being pulled over.
Turns out I’m not the only one who feels that way.
Other people of color also are struggling to watch it
The media is full of images of black trauma. Viral stories of people harassed for essentially living while black. YouTube videos of people of color getting arrested by police. Movies about slavery and Jim Crow. News clips of black bodies lying under sheets on urban streets.
I talked to a young woman named Rhema White, who lives in Stonecrest, Georgia, and feels overwhelmed by it all.
She wanted to watch “When They See Us” on Saturday after coming home from the movies, but stopped herself.
“I saw all the tweets about it. But I realized I don’t want to subject myself to that right now,” said White, 24.
“I just feel like we’re always seeing these things on the news. It can just be too much,” she said. “Some people seem like they’re just addicted to feeling bad. I want to protect myself from that. I don’t want that in my spirit.”
White believes people need to understand what happened to the Central Park Five. So she will try again to watch the miniseries this weekend – alone – and then discuss it with friends who’ve already seen it.
So will another professor I spoke to, Anna Everett, who teaches film and media studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Everett said she was planning on watching “When They See Us” this weekend and both anticipating and dreading it.
“We tend to have what we call primary identification with actors on screen … (which) means we recognize how certain media messages move and touch our emotions,” she said in an email.
“They either trigger pleasure or pain, sometimes both simultaneously (say the horror genre, example). We therefore anticipate being swept up in the powerful retelling of this history that we either chose to ‘witness’ via watching this portrayal, or avoid by missing it.”
One woman could only watch 10 minutes before she stopped
That’s the same mix of emotions Natasha Carter told me she felt when she tried to watch “When They See Us” over the weekend.
“But every time I seriously contemplated turning it on, I feared it was going to upset me or make me angry. So I didn’t watch it,” said Carter, who lives in the Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem, Pennsylvania.
She tried to watch it again earlier this week but had to bail after about 10 minutes.
“It’s kind of weird that I’m nervous to watch it. It’s the work week – I don’t have time for emotions,” she said. The show made her think “about the men that I love in my life and how quickly their life can change for no reason. That bothers me.”
Carter praised DuVernay for tackling the subject, and she hopes all races – not just black people – watch “When They See Us.”
She also said she’ll try to watch the series again later this week. But only in the daytime.
“It’s easier in the daylight,” she said. “When it’s dark, it’s scary.”
I will try again, too. Maybe this weekend. Maybe it’s something my son and I should watch, and discuss, together.
CNN’s Lisa Respers France contributed to this story.