Leonard Pitts: What they see when they see us

This image released by Netflix shows Ethan Herisse as Young Yusef Salaam, and Aunjanue Ellis as Sharonne Salaam in a scene from "When They See Us." (Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix via AP)

It's a story that will lacerate your heart.

Indeed, you'll watch "When They See Us," director Ava DuVernay's new Netflix miniseries, in appalled disbelief and open-mouthed horror. That may sound like a warning. It's actually a recommendation.

DuVernay tells the story of the so-called Central Park 5, four of them black, one Hispanic, who were convicted of the brutal 1989 rape and assault of a white woman jogger. It is an unsparing re-creation of an ugly time.

Halting and confused, the boys struggle to describe a crime they did not commit in order to stop police officers from yelling at them and smacking them around. The concocted tales make no sense, but prosecutor Linda Fairstein is satisfied. Having decided that these are her perpetrators, she will not swerve from that, even as the facts scream otherwise.

Nor will the news media, egged on by an angry public and by public figures like Donald Trump. The boys are convicted in the court of public opinion before they ever enter a court of law, branded as "thugs," "monsters," "animals." In the movie, as in life, Trump says they should die. "I want to hate these murderers," he wrote, "and I always will."

So in the absence of any forensic evidence, based only on "confessions" they said were slapped, lied and bullied out of them by police, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Korey Wise and Kevin Richardson are convicted. It doesn't seem to matter to anyone that they are only boys, 14 to 16 years of age. It doesn't seem to matter that they are innocent.

Yet for as much as this is the story of a particular crime, the movie is also the story of an ongoing crime. Meaning America's long history of using dark-skinned men as its all-purpose "other," the rapacious beast lurking at every dark corner, hiding in every dark heart. If he is real, maybe America is not so bad.

But without him, how do you justify slavery? Or lynching? Or mass incarceration? How do you justify Trayvon and Tamir? Without him, how do you go on thinking of yourself as a people righteous and good?

So the beast is necessary. And if a given black man chooses not to play that role, insists on trying to live as a good person in a free country, it may not matter. The role may be imposed on him anyway. And there'll be nothing he can do about it.

That's the deeper story DuVernay tells. She makes us watch, breaks our hearts, as the boys discover this part they've been tapped to play. With moist, frightened eyes, they look to their parents for answers, because when you're a kid, you trust mom or dad to make the wrong thing right. But one by one, in a shifting of eyes or a pursing of lips, moms and dads are forced to stand impotent before children, to confess that for this, they have no answers.

And one by one, you see something go out of those boys.

Their convictions were vacated in 2002 when a serial rapist, supported by DNA evidence, confessed to the crime. Neither Fairstein, who went on to become a successful novelist, nor Trump, who became president, has ever acknowledged they were wrong. In agreeing to a $41 million settlement in 2014, New York City also refused to admit being wrong.

But they were all wrong. As were many of us.

That’s why this miniseries needs to be seen and internalized. It’s not just a story of justice denied. It is also the story of a harsh truth most dark-skinned people are forced to learn at some point. Namely that, “When They See Us,” they very often see only something the size, shape — and color — of their fears.

When they see us, they often don't see us at all.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com