Black Males & A History Of Blackmail

DuVernay’s masterpiece “When They See Us” re-emphasizes a sordid perception of Black boys and men

“You know, I’m finally starting to wrap my mind around this s—. We’re in here for life. We’re gonna die in here! We might as well go up to the cemetery, pick out a plot and start digging.” — Martin Lawrence as Claude Banks in “Life”

When iconic comedians Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence collaborated on the movie “Life” in 1999, it was rightfully billed as a comedy-drama filled with laughs and hijinks. No matter how much we laughed at the movie, though, one unsettling fact remained:

Claude (Lawrence) and Ray (Murphy) spent their entire lives in jail for a crime they didn’t commit. What played out in a movie was the reality of so many Black men in the South and throughout the country, and it was no laughing matter.

“Life” was released on April 16, 1999 — almost 10 years to the date of one of the grossest miscarriage of justices that has ever played out in the public eye. Recently, we’ve relived the horror that befell the “Central Park Five” through the lens of director Ava DuVernay and her latest project, “When They See Us.”

The visceral and devastating four-part series begins with a single date — April 18, 1989. That was the date where a white female jogger was discovered in Central Park, and five boys — Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Korey Wise were treated and tried as men. The series has been so tough for some to watch that folks could only stand to watch 15 or 20 minutes of the over four-hour series. The individuals who made their way to the fourth episode dived into the especially tough journey of young Korey, who, at 16, was tried as an adult and sent to the likes of Rikers Island and Attica Correctional Prison.

Wise’s personal and physical struggles are displayed to the audience in a way that almost mirrors the titular track from “Life,” performed by K-Ci and JoJo:

Temperature’s like a hundred degrees

Like I got chains on me

Black male in a family of three

Been robbed of my destiny

Reckon I’ll fly away

‘Cause it’s too much for the man

Shouldn’t have gone down this way

What happened to my master plan?

‘Cause I can’t figure out

I could have been a loved child

Shouldn’t have gone down this way

The Central Park Five served between six and 14 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, and the gravity of that injustice weighed so heavily in the series when we, the audience, saw their boys-to-men transition. They could have just as easily belted out K-Ci’s existential question — “Tell me, how did I get life?”

Instead, one of the previews for “When They See Us” asked a more pressing question that relates to Black men:

“When do we ever get to be boys?”

Fourteen-year-old George Stinney was tried and executed in South Carolina in 1944 in an unfair trial. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 because a white woman said he whistled at her. The “Scottsboro Boys,” whose trials predated both the Stinney and Till murders, were a group of nine teenagers from 12 to 19 who were accused of rape in 1931.

As much as racial injustice is a common denominator of these cases, there’s also the truth that America will not address honestly. This country cares more about the claims of a white damsel in distress than it does the obligation of justice for Black boys.

DuVernay displays this dynamic masterfully through her portrayal of diabolical prosecutor Linda Fairstein. The portrayal of Fairstein was so decisive that it has led to petitions and a call for Fairstein’s publisher to drop her. Some would like to take it a step further — specifically, for Fairstein to do time.

That will be hard for America to stomach. It’s still hard for certain folks to come to the realization that Rose Armitage was a predator and not a victim in “Get Out.” The silver-haired, pale-skinned Daenerys Targaryen wasn’t a ruler who demanded total obedience and killed innocents. No, she was misunderstood and had “daddy issues.”

The pathology and the solution can be found in the first two episodes of the four-part series. Elizabeth Lederer (played by Vera Farming in the series) was the district attorney assigned to the case by Fairstein. There’s a cold and calculated dialogue that she had with defense attorney Mickey Joseph (played by Joshua Jackson) in an attempt to make a deal:

Lederer: Fair? What’s that word mean, anyway?

Joseph: I don’t know, something to do with justice, I think.

Lederer: It’s no longer about justice, Counselor. It’s about politics. And politics is about survival. And there’s nothing far about survival.

Joseph: Survival at what cost? These boys don’t deserve to pay the price —

Lederer: I’m not interested in having a philosophical —

Joseph: Then what are you interested in?

Lederer: I asked you here to talk about a deal.

The “deal” comes at the expense of Black boys — our lives are collateral for the illusion of white innocence.

It’s why one of the most powerful scenes in the movie is the picture of the incomparable Aunjanue Ellis playing the role of Salaam’s mother, Sharonne. She storms into the police station and not only demands to see her son, but (temporarily) liberates him from the ravenous prosecutors and police.

That’s the same attitude that we must take with our children, and as so many examples show, our Black boys.

Their lives — our lives — depend on it.

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