Amplifying Black Voices: When They See Us

Every so often, Netflix throws you a bone and tacks on some bonus features to their original programming. After you finish all the episodes of When They See Us, you can choose to watch an interview with the real life Exonerated Five, conducted by Oprah Winfrey and featuring director Ava DuVernay and certain cast members.

Leave it to Joshua Jackson, Charlie Conway himself to provide one of the more memorable quotes. As the actor who played one of the attorneys for the Exonerated Five, Jackson was asked to reflect on what he took away from the experience. “What did I learn about the justice system?” he responds. “It’s the wrong name for it.” It’s as if Jackson was speaking on behalf of all the privileged white people who either weren’t aware of the lack of justice in this case or have never had to experience it for themselves. Or both. I count myself among that group.

DuVernay is not only one of the more prominent directors working today, but also one of the very best educators in the film medium. She takes us to school time and time again because there are too many gaps to be filled in our understanding of racial injustice, and she wants to do something about that. These particular five black boys were charged with a gruesome crime they didn’t commit (in Central Park, hence their old nickname), manipulated and blackmailed into admitting their non-existent guilt, did their time in juvy and jail and then continued to suffer repercussions once they were released as young men. It’s practically impossible to make a living and have a normal life when you’re a registered sex offender, you see. But the system is all too happy to keep you under its thumb and incarcerate you again at the smallest misstep.

The most unique part about this story is the ending. The publicity that the case received and the exoneration of those five men are outliers in a country that incarcerates more people than anywhere else in the world (which DuVernay expertly explored in her documentary 13th). Otherwise, this is unfortunately an all too common tale. To me, that was the most frightening realization of watching When They See Us. How many times has there been a miscarriage of justice like this and it didn’t receive any media attention? How many black people have had their lives ripped away from them by modern day versions of racism and suppression? The number has to be staggering.

DuVernay wisely packed the cast with relative unknowns, with the exception of a handful of well-placed veteran actors like Jackson, Niecy Nash, John Leguizamo, Famke Janssen, Vera Farmiga and Michael K. Williams. I’ve always believed this makes for a more seamless immersion into the story. These boys cease to be actors in our eyes and embody those poor souls. Jharrel Jerome in particular nails all of the mannerism of Korey Wise as a kid and an adult. It’s a remarkable performance among many and will leave a lasting impression on me.

During Winfrey’s interview, one of the Exonerated Five admits to being broken by what he experienced and is a shell of himself as a result. The young actors looked on distraught and despondent as Jackson and others quietly consoled them. The question we have to ask ourselves is not just why do we allow this to keep happening in our society, but how do we stop it in order to spare future generations from experiencing their own version of this racial injustice?

Amplifying Black Voices: Selma from Ava DuVernay

How’s everyone doing out there? Good I hope. Make sure you’re staying safe and taking care of yourself. That’s been pretty challenging this year, but it’s more important than ever.

Of the many losses we have endured in 2020, one of the more notable ones was the passing of John Lewis, longtime Congressman for Georgia, civil rights leader and proponent of good trouble. Upon his death, colleagues and admirers praised his memory and were adamant that the best way to honor Lewis is to continue his legacy of fighting for justice and equality for black people.

Selma shows us Lewis towards the beginning of that journey, as he embarked on a series of voting rights marches along with fellow leaders Martin Luther King Jr., James Bevel and Hosea Williams, among others. Things go about as well for them as you’d expect in 1960s Alabama: white supremacy rears its ugly head to meet them head on and the marchers are beaten, arrested and in some cases murdered. If you know your history or if you’ve simply seen the film, you know that ultimately King, Lewis and co. overcame this particular wave of hatred and bigotry and completed their march from Selma to Montgomery. These efforts were a key part of securing voting rights for black people. Happy ending, right?

Well, not exactly. Selma was released in 2014 but in many ways, the story is timeless. It is sadly an accurate depiction of any point in U.S. history when black people have advocated for their own justice. John Legend, who won an Oscar for the song he and Common wrote for the film, expressed that this is still very much a modern story. DuVernay rightfully showcases the efforts of these civil rights heroes, but this is just as much of a wake up call as anything. 2020 provides all the evidence you need to see that these issues are as deeply rooted in our country as ever. The murder of George Floyd. Black Lives Matter protests being attacked both literally and figuratively. The shooting of Jacob Blake. The lack of justice for Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain (who was murdered not too far from where I live). On and on it goes.

DuVernay is an expert at pulling back the curtain and educating us on these systemic problems. One of the lessons here is that there is a danger in viewing Selma in a solely historical context because of its modern day relevancy. It disappoints me that many critics chose not to highlight that aspect but rather how inaccurately Lyndon B. Johnson may or may not have been portrayed. If your main critique of the film is that the white President didn’t get his fair share of credit for the supporting role he played in this movement, you are missing the point. And besides, adaptations in film are not supposed to be documentaries. As Lewis himself wrote, “We do not demand completeness of other historical dramas, so why is it required of this film?”

I think that alone shows how much work is to be done to reach true equality and justice for black people.

Amplifying Black Voices: 13th from Ava DuVernay

What’s more difficult? Earning someone’s attention or keeping it? Over the past few weeks the Black Lives Matter movement has finally earned the attention it has long deserved. We here at Flimsy Film Critics firmly believe Black Lives Matter and we do not want to see this movement turn into only a moment, we want them to matter every day going forward.

As two privileged white males the best thing we can do is listen and then use what we learn to help spread the message of equality and the need for systemic changes in every avenue of our world. Not only spread the message but use our platform to amplify their voices. Clearly this won’t solve everything but we feel it is our responsibility to do our part to help keep this obscenely important message alive and well and in the forefront of everyone’s mind.

Watch.

The best place to start in the film world is the documentary filmĀ 13th from Ava DuVernay. It’s probably the most recommended film in light of the recent week’s events and there is good reason for that. Just watch it. This documentary sets the stage and clearly lays out exactly how we got to the place we are today. It is harrowing, difficult to watch, and filled to the brim with so much information that it will demand a second viewing just to take it all in.

Listen.

The documentary breaks down how the current state of our judicial system was created to imprison as many people as possible, particularly people of color. It shows the clear transition from the end of slavery to the exploitation of a loophole in our constitution to keep entire generations of a portion of our society down.

Educate.

The film overwhelms the viewer with clear data that lays bare the clear racism that exists in our policies, our policing, and our politicians. It states plainly the horrors that black people face every single day.

Amplify.

Ava DuVernay is the first black female director to have a film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture for Selma. She was the first black female director to have a documentary film nominated as well for 13th. And yet it has taken weeks of protests and press and attention for my network of people, and myself, to start paying attention to her. Her talent is incredible, her work speaks for itself, and we need to stop ignoring people on the basis of their gender and their skin. We need her voice and we need to listen.

There is no justification for not joining this equal rights movement. There is no justification for not watching, for not listening, for not educating, for not amplifying. The time should have been decades ago but the time is now. Watch. Listen. Educate. Amplify.

Black Lives Matter.