The Sorrow of the Same Train: Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us and James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long …

True stories of the persecution of black boys and men in the United States have, perhaps, never been as raw as in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. Her four-part miniseries about the Central Park (Exonerated) Five is breaking viewing records on Netflix. But when DIANE DE BEER read James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone (1968) at the same time as watching the miniseries, the 50 years between the two explorations of the same agonising topic burned away, into the same history of hate:

 

 

When two brothers, Caleb (17) and Leo (10) are stopped by the police in James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone (1968)

I’m glad you were with me, because if it hadn’t been for you, they’d have given me licking …

What for?

Because I’m black, Caleb said. Because I’m black and they paid to beat on black asses. But with a kid your size, they just might get into trouble. So they let us go.

 

Anything changed? That was written more than 30 years before the last century ended and we are almost 20 years into the new one.

when they see us
A scene from Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us

And yet horror is still being expressed by the events (1989) of the exonerated Central Park Five. The story has suddenly been given life again by the expressive Ava DuVernay’s evocative and brilliantly blunt When They See Us, recently released on Netflix.

You just need to focus on the name of the four-episode dramatised version of five black and brown teenagers wrongly accused of the assault and rape of a woman jogger in new York’s most iconic public park – hence the name, the Central Park Five. The men were exonerated years later, in 2002, but this series is a reminder once again of the horrific racism of the American justice department including the police and the prosecutors as well as the wrongful rage of the media at the time. Property magnate Donald Trump further exacerbated and fuelled the fire of an already baying white citizenry with full-page ads (at the cost of $85 000) in the New York Times and other papers. He called for New York State to adopt the death penalty.

What DuVernay does in this particular series is focus on the young boys (from 14 to 16 at the time of their arrest), the way they were mistreated, the absence of any rights for the young boys and their parents and how far and wide the damage spreads in a community when this kind of devastatingly wrongful act is taken to its conclusion – one of the young men, 16 at the time, was tried as an adult and sent directly to Rykers, one of America’s most notorious prisons.

Ava DuVernay at work
Ava DuVernay at work on When They See Us

 

To witness only his story which unfolds in harrowing detail in episode 4, is devastating. I cried from start to finish. To see a life destroyed in such a wilful manner is impossibly sad. But DuVernay knows exactly what she is doing and she doesn’t hold back.

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour for example, when talking about Donald Trump (now president of course) she explains why she included particular clips of him and a television interview: “What he said at the time contributed to the air of criminal bias pointing to black and brown boys and girls as animals, a wolfpack, dehumanising black people.”

The Trump interview itself is also packaged in a way that is both screamingly funny yet shows the contempt of  the two women when they hear him speak.

As he talks about black people (in 1989), he says he would like to be a “well educated black because I do believe they have an actual advantage today”. The real interview is played on a television screen in the room with two of the mothers of the accused boys watching. The one turns to the other and says:

“What is a black?”

“I don’t know,” says the friend, “but when is the white man going to get a break in this country?”

A retort follows sharply: “They have to keep that bigot off TV.”

“Don’t worry about it, his 15 minutes is almost up!”

And knowing what we know now, that’s no longer funny.

 

James Baldwin writes further in his book about his white fellow Americans: I did not want to leave this fire, leave this room, but I wanted to get out of this country. I had had it amongst all these deadly and dangerous people, who made their own lives, and all the lives they touched, so flat and stale and joyless.

My countrymen impressed me, simply as being the emptiest and most unattractive people in the world. It seemed a great waste of one’s only lifetime to be condemned to their chattering, vicious, pathetic, hysterically dishonest company.

For these people would not change, they could not, they had no energy for change: the very word caused their eyes to unfocus, their lips to loosen or to tighten, and sent them scurrying into their various bombshelters.

 

What is so astonishing about DuVernay’s stubborn spotlight on issues and people who have never had a voice, is that she has obviously decided to take a stand and speak her mind on issues that people have been pussyfooting around to the consternation or confusion of the rest of the world watching.

When referring to Trump, there’s no hesitation when she points to his “racist supremacist views and opportunist buffoonery of the time”.

She’s equally blunt when speaking about the US prison system, something she has invested in keenly with her Academy Award winning documentary 13th which exposed the historical racial bias in the system.

Answering a question by Amanpour about the broken system, she again approached it head-on: “I don’t believe the system is broken. It’s working exactly as it was meant to work.”

And that’s exactly what she focussed on in 13th: “How the system came to be, the historical context of a criminal justice system that overindexes on the criminalisation of people of colour in the US.”

“It can’t be reformed,” she tells Amanpour. ”It has to be completely overhauled.” And then she adds, “We need massive work to reframe how we think of criminality in the US.”

That is precisely why the five young men (Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson) turned to her as their saviour, the one they wanted and willed to tell their story.

They knew she had the insight and would get it right. For her it was about showing their innocence destroyed as they were ripped from their youth in a matter of moments. They didn’t stand a chance. The prosecutor of the case is heard saying: “Every black man who was in the park that night is a suspect. I need all of them.”

She got what she asked for and more. Corey Wise wasn’t in the park, he simply accompanied a friend to the police station as support. He was sentenced for 15 years and because he was unwilling to confess to a crime he didn’t commit, he wasn’t allowed parole.

 

A final note from James Baldwin: People become frightened in many different ways – the ways in which they become frightened may sometimes determine how long they live. Here I was, in the country, and on a country road, alone, facing two armed white men who had legal sanction to kill me; and if killing me should prove to be an error, it would not matter very much, it would not for them be a serious error. It would not cost them their badges or their pensions, for the only people who would care about my death could certainly never reach them Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.

Watch both 13th and When They See Us on Netflix if you haven’t done that already.

 

  • The details are easy to look up on the internet, but in case you want to know: The case was heard in two 1990 trials. In one, Salaam, McCray, and Santana were found guilty of rape, assault, robbery, and riot, and sentenced to the maximum, 5 to 10 years in a youth facility. Richardson was convicted of attempted murder, rape, sodomy, and robbery and was also sentenced to 5 to 10 years. Wise, at 16, tried as an adult and convicted of sexual abuse, assault, and riot was sentenced to 5 to 15 years. Santana, Richardson, McCray, and Salaam went to juvenile detention for five to seven years but when they were released, they were required to register as sex offenders, which limited their ability to find work. Finally they were all exonerated when a man already in prison, came forward with a guilty plea.

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