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I'm a black man with a teenage son. I can't bring myself to watch 'When They See Us'



I tried to watch "When They See Us." I couldn't even get past the trailer.

As scenes from director Ava DuVernay's new Netflix miniseries about the Central Park Five flashed across my screen, I felt sick.
Maybe it was the all-too familiar images of young black men in police custody and on trial. Maybe it was the parade of weeping mothers and anguished fathers.
Or maybe it was my own memories of negative encounters with the police.
I remember what's it's like to be a young black man on the other end of a police officer's suspicious stare. And I've got a teenage son now. Sadly I know he'll endure the same treatment.
Watching the trailer brought all this to the surface.
Why do some TV shows and movies generate such emotions in us? David Ewoldsen, a professor of media and information at Michigan State University, told me it's because consuming a story through a visual medium is a very particular mode of engagement.
"One of our motivations for engaging in stories is to get away from ordinary life," Ewoldsen said. But the sobering world of "When They See Us" -- decades old but still very real to many African Americans in 2019 -- doesn't afford us that respite.
"It's not an escape from our everyday stresses," Ewoldsen said. "We have a tendency, when watching TV or film, to put ourselves in it."
It could have been me ... or my son
"When They See Us" is about one of the great injustices in modern American history. It's the true story of Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana, five teenagers of color who were convicted of raping, beating and leaving a white female jogger for dead in New York City's Central Park in 1989.
Police coerced false confessions from the teens, who were convicted despite no direct evidence tying them to the crime. They spent years in prison before a serial rapist confessed to raping the jogger. DNA evidence exonerated them and their convictions were vacated in 2002. The case has became a flashpoint in the fight against systematic racism in the justice system.
What gets to me -- no, what outrages me -- is how much things haven't changed much since. With stunning regularity we learn of black men who are exonerated too late of crimes they didn't commit. We've seen encounters between black men and police turn unnecessarily deadly. Think of Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Or Terence Crutcher. If they had been white, they'd probably still be with us today.

Niecy Nash in "When They See Us." The miniseries is split into four parts.
"It's kind of weird that I'm nervous to watch it. It's the work week -- I don't have time for emotions," she said. The show made her think "about the men that I love in my life and how quickly their life can change for no reason. That bothers me."
Carter praised DuVernay for tackling the subject, and she hopes all races -- not just black people -- watch "When They See Us."
She also said she'll try to watch the series again later this week. But only in the daytime.
"It's easier in the daylight," she said. "When it's dark, it's scary."
I will try again, too. Maybe this weekend. Maybe it's something my son and I should watch, and discuss, together.

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