Netflix's 'Most Watched Show' Hits A Nerve For Aussies

'When They See Us' is a true story about black and brown men being punished for crimes they didn't commit, a theme that has resonated with audiences worldwide.

Netflix has claimed When They See Us -- based on the true story of five Harlem teens who were falsely accused of a brutal attack in Central Park and jailed between six and 13 years until they were exonerated of the crime -- has been the streaming service's most-watched U.S. series every day since its premiere.

While no audience numbers were provided to verify the claim, critics have applauded the Ava DuVernay-directed project as "searing and compelling".

The harrowing story of Antron McCray, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana -- black and brown boys convicted of assault, rape and attempted murder but found innocent years later -- has struck a chord not only in America but within communities of colour worldwide, including Australia.

READ MORE: Ava DuVernay's Central Park Five Lines Up An All-Star Cast For Netflix Series


The four-part series focuses on the brutal sexual and physical assault of white female jogger Trisha Meili, 28, in Central Park in April 1989. Five teenagers in the park around the same time as the crime were apprehended by police and interrogated by detectives for hours about the attack.

All five boys repeatedly denied any involvement, then later admitted to the crime but soon after recanted, saying detectives promised they could go home if they produced confessions. None of their DNA matched a sample from the rape kit.

They were interrogated for up to 40 hours -- without food, water, a lawyer or parent.

Amid numerous inconsistencies, the teens were convicted of attempted murder, rape, assault, and rioting during two separate trials in 1990.

Teenager Antron McCray with his mother during the Central Park Jogger trial. Image: Gerald Herbert/NY Daily News Archive via Getty.

McCray, Salaam and Santana -- aged between 14 and 15 -- were sentenced to five to 10 years imprisonment, the maximum penalty for juveniles.

Richardson was sentenced to five to 10 years and Wise, 16, who was charged as an adult, was sentenced to five to 15 years and sent to Rikers Island prison.

Fast forward to 2002 and a known rapist named Matias Reyes, 31, confessed to the Central Park Jogger attack. A year earlier, Reyes had spoken with Wise when both were inside Auburn Prison and admitted he was the perpetrator.

Matias Reyes, 18, is taken by detectives from the W. 82nd St. station for booking for a different crime. Image: William LaForce Jr./NY Daily News Archive via Getty

After a District Attorney investigation matched Reyes’ DNA to semen from Trisha Meili's rape kit, and Reyes gave a detailed confession correlating with the facts of the case, a judge overturned the Central Park Five's convictions.

New York City settled a civil rights lawsuit brought by the Central Park Five for almost $60 million in June 2014, after a legal battle lasting more than 10 years.


In the follow-up special to the series titled Where They See Us Now, aired in mid-June, the Five sat down with Oprah Winfrey, who was also an executive producer of the series.

The group interview, with insight from the cast and crew, showed how years of false imprisonment had left an indelible mark on the men's collective psyche.

Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Anton McCray, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise during their interview with Oprah on June 9 in Los Angeles. Image: Handout/Getty

McCray told Winfrey he could never forgive his father for the role he played in his wrongful incarceration. In the series, his father is seen instructing his son to tell the police what they want to hear so he can go home.

“I’m damaged. I need help. I know it, but I just try to keep myself busy,” McCray admitted during the interview. “The system broke a lot of things in me that can’t be fixed.”

The men revealed the City of New York has still not issued a formal apology.


After When They See Us aired, sexual crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein received immediate backlash for her role in the boys' wrongful convictions.

The 72-year-old has since deleted her social media, stepped down from board positions and charities and been dropped by her book publisher.

She wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that called the series a "false story" that was defamatory against her.

When Winfrey asked the Five if they blamed Fairstein for their wrongful convictions, Santana vehemently said he did.

“As a prosecutor, you know that moment that that DNA evidence comes back and it doesn’t match... at that moment, this was her chance for her to take a step back and say let me reevaluate, something’s wrong here, ‘cause it doesn’t match," he said.

“Then, we find out later on during deposition that they tested over 40 kids and no DNA matched. And so it’s that pivotal moment that she had the power in her hand to really do the right thing and she fumbled it.”

Another prosecutor from the case, Elizabeth Lederer, didn't have her contract renewed from Columbia Law School this month. Over 10,000 people signed a petition calling for Lederer to be fired.


At the time of the crime, Donald Trump -- then a New York City real estate tycoon -- paid around $120,000 for alarming full-page ads in the city's major newspapers acknowledging the attack and advocating for the death penalty.

Following the release of When They See Us, now-President Trump was asked by a reporter this week whether he would apologise to the men for the ads.

"You have people on both sides of that. They admitted their guilt," he doubled down.

"If you look at Linda Fairstein and if you look at some of the prosecutors, they think that the city should never have settled that case. So we'll leave it at that."

Why The Central Park Five Resonates In Australia

When They See Us has sparked global chatter around wrongful imprisonment and the over-representation of marginalised communities behind bars.

In Australia, over half of the 10- to 17-year-olds in detention are Aboriginal, according to the Youth Detention Population in Australia 2017 report.

The Central Park Five strike a chord with Australia's Indigenous community due to "hypervisibility, literally based on skin colour, " Dr Megan Williams told 10 daily.

"That's a big issue with our Indigenous youth, who are targeted based on skin colour plus location, " the Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney said.

READ MORE: Moral And Legal Stoush Over Aboriginal Flag: 'A Question Of Control'

"Data shows Indigenous young people are far more likely to come into police contact than any other young people in Australia. That's so disproportionate compared to their numbers in the general population."

While she has viewed the series trailer and Oprah Winfrey special, Williams -- a Wiradjuri descendant -- hasn't watched When They See Us as it's "too sensitive".

"It's too much like real life for many of our families. With the justice system in Australia, it resonates too much. The system is so huge compared to a young Aboriginal person and the lack of money, opportunity and know-how for them to get good legal representation."

There is currently no reliable national data on the prevalence of wrongful convictions in Australia, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology. Williams said while wrongful conviction data in Australia might be available at a state jurisdictional level, it hasn't been published as it's "not a priority".

READ MORE: What It Means To Be "Too Pretty To Be Aboriginal"

"But also to be honest, no one cares if an Indigenous person is wrongfully convicted, " she said. "When They See Us was five people, so I think that's a big reason the story came to light. Public outrage at the time and publicity at the time were likely to be factors."

Contact the author: