Still from “When They See Us.”
Your first reaction to the concurrence of three online films about the racist abuses of the American criminal justice system might be to attribute this to pure happenstance. However, given the objective reality of the increasing legal, moral and political rot of the police, the courts and the prison system, it was inevitable that filmmakers of conscience would feel impelled to respond to the crisis. In other words, we should not speak of happenstance but ineluctability.
Made for Netflix, Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” is a docudrama about the Central Park Five, a group of African-American teens who spent up to twelve years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Running on HBO, “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” is a documentary about a Jamaican soccer coach accused of the murder of the 12-year old son of his ex-girlfriend in Potsdam, New York. Like the cops in DuVernay’s film, their investigation is filled with irregularities intended to help convict a Black man. Finally, there is “Free Meek” on Amazon Prime, another documentary, this time about a successful rapper from Philadelphia who is hounded by an African-American female judge determined to keep him on probation for the rest of his life for a crime he supposedly committed when he was 19-years old. Like the Central Park Five, his main crime in the eyes of the cops was being Black. As is so often the case with such victims, having Black cops, judges or prison guards does not make much difference to people of color being cast down into the system of hell they maintain.
Unlike the very good documentary done by Ken Burns on the Central Park Five that I reviewed in 2012, DuVernay’s goal is as much to flesh out the humanity of the five young men both before and after their imprisonment as it is to expose police malfeasance. The emphasis is on the terrible suffering endured by Korey Wise, the only one of the five who was over fifteen at the time of his arrest and thus eligible to be treated as an adult. Or, more accurately, mistreated.
The circumstances of his arrest epitomize the way in which the DA and the cops conspired to entrap all five young men, in his case in the most extreme manner. Wise was friends with Yusuf Salaam, who was fifteen at the time of his arrest on April 19, 1989, and only arrested because he accompanied Salaam to the precinct house out of solidarity. Wise was hearing-impaired and suffered from a learning disability. Given his status as an adult, the cops were not required to bring in a guardian or parent to monitor the interrogation. This, combined with his other problems, made him easy prey for the cops who managed to extract multiple statements and two videotaped confessions from him. It didn’t matter that all were at variance with each other and inconsistent with the victim’s injuries.
In a casting coup, Felicity Huffman plays Linda Fairstein, the cynical, self-serving chief of the sex crimes unit of the DA’s office in New York. Huffman has been found guilty of paying to have her daughter’s SAT scores inflated for her to get admitted to USC. She will be sentenced on September 10th. Fairstein is despicable and DuVernay nails her to the wall. So compelling is the portrait she draws that Fairstein has become a persona non grata in the heights of the legal, educational, philanthropic, and literary world she inhabited, even after the innocence of the five men was established by the confession of a convicted rapist who ironically was in the same prison as Wise. To give you an idea of the class and race bias of Fairstein, she assisted District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in his decision not to prosecute Dominique Strauss-Kahn for sexual assault in 2012.
The fourth and final episode of “When They See Us” is focused on the brutal treatment of Korey Wise in various prisons as he struggled to maintain his dignity, all the while insisting on his innocence.. All he had to do to become a parolee was acknowledge his supposed crimes. Refusing to do so cost him years of additional imprisonment. With the settlement of 41 million dollars for their false arrest, the Central Park Five have now been able to live good lives and to lend their support to other people victimized by the criminal justice system. Korey Wise, who received $12.25 million, has contributed $190,000 to the Innocence Project, a legal aid group devoted to the defense of indigent and racially oppressed people.
With this film, DuVernay builds upon the reputation she established with “Selma”, a film about the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. She makes films that combine social messages with cinematic genius. As such, “When They See Us” should be on your list of must-see films of 2019.
While she has received nearly universal acclaim for this work, other critics find fault. While none of them go so far as Donald Trump and Ann Coulter in insisting on their guilt no matter the confession alluded to above, they grumble that she didn’t tell the full story. One of them is Aaron Bady, who has written for liberal flagships like The Nation and The Boston Review. In a piece for The Week titled “The danger of knowing one thing about the Central Park Five”, Bady accepts that the five boys were railroaded into false confessions but warns that there is another “thing” about them that has to be understood:
Meanwhile, on the other side of the argument, defenders tend to elide or overlook the fact that Salaam, Richardson, McCray, Wise, and Santana had, in fact, been among a group of two or three dozen boys who had been hassling bicyclists and throwing rocks at cars: Antonio Diaz, a man they took to be homeless, was beaten unconscious and robbed; and a series of male joggers — David Lewis, David Good, Robert Garner, and John Loughlin — were assaulted, Loughlin seriously enough to spend two nights in the hospital.
This is the same “thing” that Trump and Coulter go on about. They were “among” a group of marauding youth and through the time-dishonored method of guilt by association worthy of punishment of some sort. What Bady doesn’t get is the need for legal transparency within a system of justice that is color-blind. By smearing the five men in this fashion, he exhibits the fatal flaws of American liberalism that while certainly not as bad as the outright racism of the Trump administration still serves as its “good cop”.
Although only one episode of “Who Killed Garrett Phillips” has aired, it promises to be one of the most gripping documentaries I have seen on HBO since “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills”, the 1996 film about Goth-styled teens being found guilty of the ritual murder of 3 younger boys.
Like that film and like “When They See Us”, this is the story of how hysteria can create a climate akin to the Salem witch trials. On October 24, 2011, the twelve-year-old son of a bartender named Tandy Cyrus was found close to death in her second-floor apartment in Potsdam, a town of over 17,000 people near the Canadian border that was home to two colleges, the SUNY school of the same name and Clarkson University. Garrett Phillips died later that night and the police took no time in identifying Oral “Nick” Hillary as their chief suspect.
Originally from Jamaica, Nick Hillary was a soccer coach at Clarkson who had been part of a group of Jamaicans who helped lead the soccer team at St. Lawrence University to a national championship. Despite his lack of a real motive and his elevated status as a college coach, the cops were just as determined to make a case against him as Linda Fairstein was with the Central Park Five. It turns out that right from the start, Tandy Cyrus’s prior boyfriend before Hillary, a local cop named Johnny Jones, worked closely with other cops to pin the rap on him.
About half of the first episode is the actual video of Hillary being interrogated by the Potsdam cops who kept trying to dominate this proud, self-assured Black man. They were annoyed that he was not as easy to bully as the Central Park Five, as his lawyer put it in the film,. We see the cops trying to pressure him psychologically, at one point making him remove all of his clothes, even his underwear. As another lawyer put it, this was unprecedented in such an interrogation.
The film is directed by Liz Garbus, a seasoned director who made “The Farm: Angola, USA” (about the notorious Louisiana prison), “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” (about Nina Simone) and other films that take up the cause of the exploited and the oppressed. As is the case with Ava DuVernay, she is a brilliant filmmaker and every minute of this latest work will keep your eyes glued to the TV screen. If you don’t have HBO, try to find a friend who does and hang out with them. Bring a bottle of good wine with you to show your gratitude.
The oddly-named “Free Meek” was produced by Roc Nation, the company owned by billionaire Jay-Z, about whom I will say something more later. Meek is the rapper Meek Millz, whose birth name was Robert Rihmeek Williams. Like many other rappers, including Jay-Z, Williams adopted a performance name.
Born in South Philadelphia on May 6, 1987, Millz came from a hardscrabble background. His father made a living robbing drug dealers, a job that cost him his life at an early age. Like many poor Blacks in Philadelphia, selling drugs, robbing people and other street crimes was the only way to survive. For Meek Millz, an escape from that life was to be found in rapping, a dream as likely to come true as becoming an NBA professional or any others that Black youth fantasize about. In his case, the dream came true because he had talent and because he had an all-consuming drive to succeed. We see videos of him as a young teen taking part in rap battles with older more accomplished rappers. In one case, after being humiliated by one of them, he only resolves to work harder.
In 2005, he left his apartment to go to a corner grocery to pick up some food. Before going out on the street, he put a pistol in his waistband, a measure taken strictly for self-defense. As soon as he reached the sidewalk, a group of cops swarmed around him, dragged him back into the apartment, and beat him mercilessly—all under the pretext of busting a crack den. This was a false charge, just like the charge that he pointed his gun at them, an act that would have resulted in him being shot a dozen times or more.
Brought before Judge Genece Brinkley, he was sentenced to 11 to 23 months in prison, to be followed by eight years of probation. Not long after being released from prison, he began to carve out a career as a musician. Starting modestly, he sold cassette tapes to Philadelphia shopkeepers who could barely keep them in stock because of the demand.
The next step was getting a record contract with Rick Ross, a powerful recording executive who specialized in the kind of gangsta rap that Millz perfected. His life experience likely made his lyrics closer to the truth than those of others in the field. Eventually, Millz partnered with Jay-Z, became the boyfriend of Niki Minaj, and seemed poised to become a multimillionaire.
That would have happened if Genece Brinkley had not decided to treat him the way that whites in the criminal justice system tend to do. Unlike the cops who rigged evidence against the Central Park Five and Nick Hillary, she operated strictly within the law—which was the problem. She enforced the letter of the probation codes to the point that violations based on technicalities kept adding years to Millz’s probation and thus preventing him from going on tour and carrying out other tasks related to his career.
For example, in 2012, he was in NYC in the middle of a tour. Scheduled for a concert date on his next leg, he was stuck in the city because of Hurricane Sandy. So, using the only means at his disposal, he took a train to Philadelphia to catch a plane from there. When Judge Brinkley found about this, she ruled that he could not leave Philadelphia, costing him dearly.
At the risk of revealing a spoiler (skip ahead to next paragraph if you must), the judge gets her comeuppance eventually.
When it comes to issues of class that prejudiced the high and mighty African-American judge against Millz, it is worth pointing out that Jay-Z has come under scrutiny himself. He has formed a partnership with the NFL on social issues but only brokered on the basis of sidelining Colin Kaepernick. Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s former San Francisco 49er teammate, tweeted last month: “The NFL gets 2 hide behind his black face 2 try to cover up blackballing Colin.”
None of that devalues “Free Meek”. It is both an important film in line with the others covered above as well as an introduction to the social and artistic basis of rap music. I can’t say that the music I heard while watching the film will convince me to go out and buy such music but I am glad to have my eyes opened to how it is made.