Last night, my husband and I sat down to watch Ava DuVernay’s highly anticipated Netflix series, “When They See Us”. It was the first time I truly had the chance to unwind all weekend. Having grown up in New York and been raised by parents who never shied away from the discussion of racial injustice, I was familiar with the Central Park 5. Nothing prepared me, however, for seeing this story come to life. What struck me the most during those opening scenes was the innocence in the eyes of those boys. They reminded me of my students in Harlem and that broke my heart. I always knew that the Exonerated 5 were teens at the time when they were falsely accused, but for the first time, it truly dawned on me that they were children.
“I can’t watch this,” I blurted out. “I can’t watch this right now. I’m not mentally prepared.”
My husband was disappointed to say the least. He had been waiting all day for me to stop flying around the house like a Tasmanian Devil trying to cross things off of my to-do list so that we could watch the series together.
“I’m sorry. I just can’t do this tonight. Let’s try again tomorrow,” I said.
My stomach was in knots. The interrogation scenes. The recorded confessions. The fabricated statements. The callousness of law enforcement. It was all so triggering. Later that night as I attempted to unwind while scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across the Facebook status of me and my husband’s graduate school classmate, Robert, that let me know I wasn’t alone.
“Word!? We’re shaming POC who aren’t ready to digest ‘When They See Us’ yet!? Miss me with that erudite bullshit,” his status read.
Right on brother, right on. The series is a beautiful work of art, but at the same time, it’s 296 minutes of Black trauma. Some people need to mentally and emotionally prepare for that. It’s such a heartbreaking and distressing tale that DuVernay felt the need to make a grief counselor available to the cast and crew on the set of the series.
“Ava did something I’ve never seen on any project I’ve done. She made a grief counselor available to everyone on the set,” actor Blair Underwood, who played the role of defense attorney Robert Burns, revealed to Hello Beautiful. “They were up and running by the time I came to set and I’d get e-mails from production that would say this is a very tough material. It’s emotional and it dredges up so much in all of us. Especially the young boys recreating these emotions. To be able to say here’s the person to contact if you need any grief counseling is amazing. It’s apart of what we do. It’s our job as actors to bring those emotions to the forefront and let it manifest. People deal with it different ways.”
So if you find that you’re one of the people who is struggling to emotionally process the heart-wrenching retelling, be gentle with yourself and understand that you’re not alone.
Follow Jazmine on Twitter @JazmineDenise