But within minutes, it’s obvious they’ve landed in the wrong place at the wrong time when they join a group of young men who pour into Central Park from Harlem during an infamous evening in April 1989. DuVernay shows them mostly laughing and roughhousing with each other when they stumble on a knot of young black men beating up a white man; in the Netflix series, one of the attackers says he was beaten by a group of white men in Bronx and was delivering “payback.”
News reports at the time painted a different picture. Those stories reported a group of about 30 youths “wilding” — a term the Netflix series depicts coming from an officer’s report on what one of the youths said — beating up and harassing a number of other people in the park, for no real reason.
Then there was the jogger: white, 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili. She was discovered bound and bleeding in the park, raped and almost beaten to death that night in an attack that left her in a coma for nearly two weeks. When she recovered, she had no memory of the assault.
What followed is a plunge into a nightmare that DuVernay recreates with brutal realism. Police detectives and prosecutor zero in on five boys, aged 14 to 16, who were in the park. They isolate them from parents and guardians and spend long hours coercing confessions out of each of them, promising to send them home if they just admit to participating in the rape.
I’ll be honest; I had to stop the episode several times during these scenes, once to wipe away tears. I knew what was coming for these children. They were signing away their futures with no knowledge of what they were admitting. They would be convicted of the rape on the strength of these manipulated statements. The world would assume the tale told by police and prosecutors was the truth. It felt like watching a slow-motion lynching.
This feeling only builds when the series features the real-life actions of Donald Trump, then a loud-mouthed, celebrity-chasing real estate mogul, who advocated for the Central Park Five to get the death penalty in newspaper ads. Shown in clips from interviews at the time, Trump insists he would rather be “a well-educated black” because of the advantages such a person supposedly has. This from a guy who the New York Times has reported received the equivalent of $413 million in today’s dollars from his father’s real estate empire to help build his own businesses.
Felicity Huffman, whose public image has already been hurt thanks to her guilty plea in a college admissions scandal, is fortuitously cast as the show’s biggest villain — prosecutor Linda Fairstein. In the Netflix show, she calls the Central Park Five “animals,” pushing cops to coerce confessions and hold back evidence.