Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries, “When They See Us,” (2019) about the case brought against the five black and brown youths who came to be known as the “Central Park Five,” offers a counternarrative to the traditional television police drama and its emphasis on the ultimate benevolence of policing. I take the term counternarrative specifically from artist, Alexandra Bell whose work by the same name deconstructs and then reconstructs journalistic accounts of racist violence. Importantly, these counternarratives don’t just critique, but substantively change the dominant narrative using the very forms and structures employed by the dominant institution. In Bell’s case, she intervenes in the editorial strategies of The New York Times; in DuVernay’s case, it is the representations of policing on television that are at least partially in question.
I’ve argued elsewhere that the police genre constitutes a “cultural forum” (borrowing a critical term from Horace Newcomb and Paul Hirsch) on crime, community, and citizenship (Nichols-Pethick, 2012). Rather than simply rearticulating ideological master narratives ad nauseum, the police drama – as a vast corpus of texts – creates openings within the texts for at least questioning the mythologies of policework. For example, no contemporary story of policing in an urban center could ignore the realities of #BlackLivesMatter without seeming hopelessly anachronistic if not downright irresponsible. And that nod toward relevance would necessarily raise questions about police and the use of force. This is not to say that police dramas don’t ultimately traffic in the dominant ideological narratives of police benevolence. They generally do. But it’s the questions that get raised along the way that allow them to be useful tools for thinking. When They See Us goes a step further and constructs a counternarrative, reconfiguring specific generic tropes – such as the interrogation – to disrupt the mythology of effective policing that is central to the police drama.
The interrogation of Kevin Richardson in “Part 1” of the series unfolds on the page like a typical interrogation scene, beginning with lead prosecutor, Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) telling three detectives what’s at stake. This is the stuff of high police drama: a case that has shaken the city and requires swift and meaningful justice for the victim. But DuVernay’s compositions and editing during the interrogrations tell a different story – a story of increasing injustice for the suspects.
The prosecutor’s call for justice is followed immediately by a tight, shallow-focus close-up of handcuffs, Kevin’s face in shallow focus, and then a long shot of him framed through a window and isolated, motivated only after the fact by the gaze of a detective, reordering the traditional eye-line match. After a brief and troubling exchange between the detectives and a black uniformed officer, DuVernay cuts back to the close-up of Kevin while we hear (but crucially do not see) the detectives. The interrogation follows with an unmotivated shock-cut on a moment of violence against Kevin, followed by an unbalanced shot placing Kevin to the right of the frame, facing the same direction with almost no lead room as he asks for his mother. He is trapped, isolated; and he is told as much by the detectives (again, unseen).
Working within the generic structure that moves toward the restoration of order (however flawed the techniques), DuVernay’s visual style deconstructs that structure and highlights the ways in which “order” in this case was predicated on a vision of justice built on deeply-rooted racist foundations and was, in fact, an agent of disorder. Hewing closely to the generic tropes of the television police drama to tell a very different story indicts not only the actual participants in the case, but the genre itself and its representations of policing as an ultimately restorative social function.
Harris, Shayla. "An Artist’s Work Revisits the Racist Coverage of the Central Park Five." New Yorker, 17 April 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/an-artist-revises-the-racist-news-coverage-of-the-central-park-five
Newcomb, Horace & Paul Hirsch. "Television as a Cultural Forum." Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 8 no. 3 (1983): 44-55.
Nichols-Pethick, Jonathan. TV Cops: The Contemporary American Television Police Drama. New York: Routledge, 2012.