The Counternarratives of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us

Curator's Note

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,

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.



Thank you Jonathan for this excellent and thought provoking analysis of how the cop show genre has been used to create narratives of order built on a specific visual style that as you rightly note too often has come at the expense of real "justice." Again, as you note too often the encounters depicted in policing America's streets involve interactions with African American citizens and those interactions create narratives for many audiences that equate "blackness" with criminality. As you rightly point out we need a form of counternarrative to challenge how we think about the cop show and its connection to teaching audiences about the justice system.

Duvernay's limited series as you highlight offers such an opportunity to challenge the generic norms of the cop series. I was especially struck by your discussion of how she uses the camera to frame and compose common TV set pieces like the interview room and even the equipment associated with law enforcement like handcuffs. I have to admit I did not notice those compositional elements when I watched the series and that may have to do with the fact that I was so totally moved and angered by seeing these young men's stories depicted in a way that to be honest was more affecting than the Ken Burns' documentary.

It is important as your piece and Samantha's highlight that we, as scholars, but also American TV producers and viewers begin to rethink how we respond to the dominant form of American programming that of the cop/crime series and their function as entertainment but also representations of police in America as only forces for good and maintaining order, when as the last weeks have once again highlighted policing in American is both complicated and flawed.

The visual of this clip is enough to make you feel for this child. Knowing what we know now about the case, the audience already comes with sympathy for the wrongfully accused. We know how it all turns out, but there is still a feeling of hope to somehow rewrite history in favor of the innocent. The child being left alone, like a baby deer without his mother. And the police as predators reminds me of scenes of the wild, where predators are constantly looking for a prey and rejoice at the sight of an innocent left behind, with no defense. Instead of the benevolent police, we see the predators. It is a great scene. Thank you for taking the time to engage with this scene from a visual perspective.

Thanks for this critique, Jonathan. Though brief (I look forward to reading more of your work) it affords a powerful and provocative look at deconstructing those visual rhetorics, which create and perpetuate stereotypes, at a time when that apptitude is so incredibly vital. 

Thanks for this fantastic piece, Jonathan! As I was reading your piece, I was reminded of the renewed criticism of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit’s connection to Linda Fairstein that was raised after When They See Us premieredAs we see in this clip, Fairstein, the white woman who works for the Manhattan district attorney in its sex crimes unit, prioritizes seeking retribution for her rape victim (who is also a white woman) at the devastating expense of these Black and Brown children’s lives. Her character even says: "no kid gloves here. These are not kids, they raped this woman. Our lady jogger deserves this.” And as you’ve shown, the visuals and shot composition all work to underscore the injustice and racism of the case, all while those involved feel justified because of the severity of the charges. The entire miniseries deals with the aftermath of Fairstein’s decision, which we see in greater detail in the final episode that follows Korey Wise's life after he was wrongly convicted. It was Linda Fairstein and the Central Park Jogger case, along with other highly publicized rape cases like Lorena Bobbitt’s, that led to heightened awareness and sensationalism of sexual violence in American culture and led to the creation of SVU, which has tackled sex crimes for more than two decades. Your piece and When They See Us remind us that we must continue to examine troubling legacies of famous media cases as well as the widely popular crime drama genre itself. 

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