Film and television have a capacity far beyond simple entertainment. Netflix’s When They See Us, directed by Ava Duvernay, offers extremely important social and political commentary. It tells the heartbreaking story of the Central Park Five (now known as the Exonerated Five).
In 1989, five young men of colour from Harlem in New York City were coerced into confessing to the brutal rape of a woman in Central Park. They went on to serve between six and 13 years in prison before the true perpetrator admitted to his crimes.
When They See Us offers insight in to the harsh realities of false convictions, the complicated emotions wrapped up in exonerations, and the blatant racism prevalent in the justice system. In just one month’s time, the Netflix series has been viewed over 23 million times.
The story of Korey Wise, who served the longest sentence of the five, is particularly heartbreaking; he was subject to extreme violence due to the publicized nature of the case and was the only one of the five to be tried as an adult — he was 16 at the time.
The Innocence Project, an American non-profit legal organization, revealed that a staggering 88 per cent of DNA exonerees who were arrested as minors are black and the majority were tried as adults.
There is a societal tendency to forgive white youth for their crimes, calling them youthful transgressions. The same courtesy is not extended to young people of colour. Let us not forget the controversial case of Brock Turner, (a young, white, Ivy League athlete) who was arrested in January 2015, for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster outside of a fraternity party. The judge claimed a longer prison sentence "would have a severe impact” on Turner. He was sentenced to six months in jail after being convicted of three felony sexual assault charges and was released after serving three months.
However, it is vital we remember that systemic racism is not limited to the American justice system. Statistics Canada states that Indigenous youth made up 46 per cent of admissions to youth correctional services in Canada in 2016/17, while accounting for only eight per cent of the youth population.
The Office of the Correctional Investigator reported black people are dramatically over-represented in Canada’s prison system, “making up 8.6 per cent of the federal prison population, despite the fact they make up only three per cent of the population. Between 2003 and 2013, the incarceration rate among black people increased by nearly 90 per cent.”
Issues of racism in our justice system will only continue if proper resources continue to go unfunded. Innocence Canada is just one organization serving to help those wrongfully convicted. The Star reported in 2016 that the organization was a “shadow of its former self” due to “funding woes.”
The stories of exonerees are not only widely unknown, they are uncomfortable. They force us to face the reality that our justice system is not always just. It is vital we use art, such as When They See Us, as an opportunity for learning and change. We have a responsibility, as members of a democratic society, to hold our leaders and systems accountable for the egregious errors they have made; errors rooted in racism. Injustices can only occur when we remain ignorant.
Jennifer Hamilton is a local student and writer.