Muslim blogs

Biidaaban: A Powerful Indigenous Tale of Magic and Resistance Brought to Life

The Platform - Thu, 17/10/2019 - 12:57

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s story inspired the creation of this beautifully realised, but critically powerful movie that explores the most pertinent issues facing Indigenous peoples.

Imagine a world that appears as if a child had perceived it. Where fear manifests itself in the most mundane of items, where the purity of magic prevails when the sun goes down, where everything exists with the charm of a children’s pop-up book imbued within it. Amanda Strong makes this fantasy a reality in her stop-frame animation Biidaaban (The Dawn Comes).

The film is based on the work of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, an Indigenous writer belonging to the Mississauga subtribe of the First Nations located in Ontario, Canada. Simpson is known for utilising the wonders of magic and spirituality to convey her passion for reviving Indigenous culture. In this story, we meet the eccentric Biidaaban and her 10,000-year-old shapeshifting companion Sabe, while they undertake a crucial quest to reclaim the beauty of Indigenous tradition and resist against a dark contemporary world that wants to bury it and forget.

Masked by the cover of nightfall, Biidaaban and Sabe take to the streets of a Canadian suburban town that appears ordinary on the surface, but is steeped in fantastical danger. The two characters attempt to collect sap from maple trees in order to make maple sugar, a task that had been practiced by their ancestors generations before. Throughout their journey, they are under the watchful eye of two hypnotically beautiful ghosts taking the shape of a wolf and a caribou – representing nature’s lost past and forming a key element of the story’s imagery.

The 19-minute film took two years to make and the attention to detail woven throughout the tale does not go unnoticed. Strong utilises the charms and quirks of traditional animation with such artistry in her miniature sets and puppets, and it injects this twee yet poignant story with the Hollywood auteurship of Tim Burton or Wes Anderson. Strong takes the art of cinematic visuals to otherworldly places that even transcend the need for dialogue. The majority of the narrative remains wordless, aside from the poetry that appears at the beginning and end of the story, sandwiching the message of tradition between realities of a contemporary world. Strong excels at executing a meaningful wordless narrative by turning it into a highly effective storytelling tool that deserves praise in and of itself.

There is an abundance of striking imagery running throughout the film to address a number of critical issues faced by Indigenous communities. These include fears around the loss of their culture, history and land – something that is cultivated in the film by recalling childhood fears. For instance, supposedly harmless everyday objects like a garden hose are brought to life and used to attack Biidaaban, standing in the way of her fight to reclaim her ceremonial heritage. Strong also draws attention to modernity’s oppression of Indigenous land through varying shots of electricity running through the depths of nature, a stark contrast forming between the two. The critiques do not end there, as it is evident Strong is alluding to the environmental problems the world is experiencing currently, where the ghosts of the wolf and the caribou, although beautiful, stand to represent the animals who have been chased out of their homes by land development – further acting as a metaphor for how Indigenous people has been treated, as their culture is too at risk of extinction. Strong has voiced that we are forgetting to honour the ancestors and animals that were here long before us, particularly in Canada where this story is set. This short film is a call to action, encouraging Indigenous viewers to prevent their culture from being drowned out by the white noise of modernity, to fight against land development and reclaim their rich history.

The characters of Biidaaban and Sabe embody this desired strength and tell their audiences there is no need to be afraid anymore. The final frame of the film reminds us that although tradition and modernity still stand north and south of one another, the fight to reclaim ceremonial custom lies between them in an electric space ready to collide. I would highly recommend this short for its beautifully creative form of storytelling and using this dreamlike world to unite a diverse set of cultures in understanding the issues impacting Indigenous communities that are far from fiction. It is a celebration of both the heritage of Indigenous culture and the artistry of animation.

Biidaaban is part of the Native Spirit Indigenous Film Festival, which continues in London. Register here. This film was created by CBC Arts and is available to watch on their YouTube channel.

Categories: Muslim blogs

The Report: Torture of the Mute and Voiceless

The Platform - Wed, 16/10/2019 - 11:28

An effort to portray accountability for torture in Scott Z. Burns’ new film is undercut by the silencing of the victims themselves.

*Contains spoilers

In 1963 Abraham B. Yehoshua — often dubbed the Israeli Faulkner — published a subversive short story titled Facing the Forests (Mool Ha’yearot). He tells the story of a young frustrated Israeli graduate student who decides to take up a job as a fire watcher in one of Israel’s forests, and soon finds that it is inhabited by a mute Arab and an Arab child — both of whom he befriends. One day, a group of hitchhikers pass by the forest asking him for directions to an Arab village. That’s when he quickly discovers that this forest was once an Arab village seized in 1948.

The short story goes on to reveal how the village had been turned into a forest to alter the geography of the land and to erase the memory of the Arab inhabitants that once lived there. The young watchman concludes that the forest must be burnt down to resurrect the remains of this village, so on the last day of his assignment, the protagonist prompts the mute Arab to burn the forest. Beyond the smoke, the remnants of the Arab village appear, as do all things past and all things buried. The authorities rush to the scene of the fire, and the Israeli protagonist, dumbfounded, points to the mute Arab. He alone carries all the blame.

Last week, a friend invited me to go watch The Report directed by Scott Z. Burns as a part of the BFI London Film Festival. The film follows the true story of the protagonist, Daniel Jones, a staffer in the Senate Intelligence Committee, who conducted an investigation on behalf of the senate on the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation programs’ (i.e. torture). The story tells a harrowing story of Jones’ attempts to get his 7000-page report released to the public and the CIA’s attempts to squash and intimidate him. After a decade of hard work and despite the intimidation tactics, Jones was able to release a 400-page abridged version to the public in the ‘right way’. As the protagonist affirms in the film, unlike Snowdon, he can either do it the right way or he has failed. After the report is released, the senators applaud American values of accountability and democracy.

Granted, this is in no way an attempt to undermine Jones’ work or even the film for that matter. Jones did spend a decade of his life fighting for accountability for profoundly horrific crimes. Nonetheless, something was troubling about The Report. The same thing that makes Platoon (1986) and virtually any American film against the Vietnam War deeply uncomfortable; it is the same trope magnified in Yehoshua’s short story mentioned above. Who gets to speak? And who is forever mute? How do these scenes of torture or genocide forever doom the victims to an existential silence? It is not merely a question of scope but a constant absent present. Scene after scene displayed different and exchangeable brown bodies battered, waterboarded, beaten up, tortured, and killed. They have no features and no stories; they are simply naked and helpless bodies. Except for their screams, they are silent. Almost a mise-en-scène, each torture scene is used to contextualise Jones’ frustration or the CIA’s strategy making. Just as the My Lai massacre served to contextualise Charlie Sheen’s own crisis of conscious in Platoon.

In this film, Jones states the most important fact for him and for the viewers over and over is – torture does not work. Torture is a bad strategy. It is quite likely that over 25% of those tortured were innocent. However, this review is to make a point beyond the film and beyond Daniel Jones as a character in the film or as a person. The mute victim has no story. The mute victim has no family or loved ones. The mute victim feels no pain and does not experience injustice.

We have somehow made images of a faceless naked man gagged and waterboarded into a story of our principles or ideals. Their screams are moral and ethical dilemmas that can either affirm or negate what we think about ourselves. They remain mute because the only stories we choose to tell are always about us. Will we live up to the heroic ideal of democracy we believe to embody? Or will we let ourselves down in our own eyes? And so, when Jones then allows for a semblance of accountability, somehow the moral order is restored, and we can once again celebrate American democracy. Just as the protagonist in Yehoshua’s story felt that the artificial forest threatened the myth of creation that he was made to believe. It tugged at his conscience because it didn’t live up to his ideals. And in that story, too, the mute Arab bears the consequences in the end.

Survivors of torture are made to negotiate their humanity daily. For those who got out and were able to share their stories, society advocates and even expects them to box their experiences and frame them as ‘why this is bad politics’ or ‘what does this mean for society’s ethical values?’ It is very disturbing once you sit down and hear the accounts of survivors of torture. The only way society allows for them to tell their stories is when they are not in it, their pain is abstract, their families do not exist, their voices do not exist, and only the ethical hypothetical needs to be answered. And by this, thousands of well-meaning liberal novels, stories, media reports and movies have allowed us to be the villains and heroes of the story.

The Report is on release at UK cinemas from November 2019.

Photo Credit: The Report / BFI

Categories: Muslim blogs

The Human Cost of an Environmental Disaster: ‘Guarding the Forest’ at the Native Spirit Indigenous Film Festival

The Platform - Tue, 08/10/2019 - 01:16

Max Baring’s new documentary film recounts the struggles of the indigenous peoples who live in the Amazon, after the burning of the rainforests gained international attention.

The 13th Native Spirit Film Festival will be running between 12 and 20 October 2019. This event deserves far more support and recognition as a platform for Indigenous cinema. Native Spirit works to champion and promote this unique category of filmmaking, and their chosen films delve into significant social and political issues with an artistic flair guaranteed to attract any cinephile.

One of the films being screened at this year’s festival is Max Baring’s revealing documentary Guarding the Forest, which couldn’t have been more timely. The summer of 2019 brought to light the severe ecological threat faced by our planet, as a social media storm highlighted the environmental crimes being committed in the Amazon rainforest. Although natural forest fires are not uncommon during the dry season, the sheer degree of destruction showing an increase in fires of more than 80% points towards illegal deforestation through slash-and-burn methods. The reason for this deforestation lies with the agriculture industry creating land for their produce, and although this form of demarcation is illegal in Brazil, President Bolsonaro has famously little concern for the planet’s wellbeing.

The recent international outrage is primarily concerned with the long-term environmental implications, but it is important not to lose sight of the people who are also battling the social fallout. Indigenous communities are losing homes and having their land destroyed for economic gain: if you thought climate action wasn’t getting enough media coverage, the human rights element of this atrocity certainly isn’t either. Max Baring’s festival film makes this issue known, giving a voice to the rainforest’s people.

Filmed in the Guajajara Indigenous territory within the depths of Brazil, Guarding the Forest holds a magnifying glass up to the devastation spreading through the Amazon rainforest due to the all-too-common prevalence of loggers. We are all aware of the impact deforestation has on our planet, but this documentary digs deeper into the direct social impact these atrocities have on local Indigenous populations and how members of the Guajajara community are fighting back.

The Guajajara Task Force call themselves “Guardians of the Forest” and view themselves as warriors serving to protect Mother Nature, aiming to negotiate with those who threaten her. The documentary exposes the politics surrounding the issues of deforestation and the eternal conflict between ecology and economy affecting the lives of so many. It highlights what used to be a lush beacon of greenery that provides us with 20% of the world’s oxygen, and that many justify its destruction because of the realities of a money-driven world. It is a film which surveys the fight between “individual, economic, private interests versus interests of the collective rights of Indigenous peoples” as Brazil’s first Indigenous congresswoman Joênia Wapichana puts it.

Following the election of President Bolsonaro and the power over land demarcation being transferred to the Ministry of Agriculture (an organisation whose main priority lies with farming) as opposed to the original organisation FUNAI (a foundation which aims to protect the rights of Indigenous people) logging has become far more of a cultural, as well as an environmental, threat.

Filmmakers put themselves on the front line as they utilise footage of fire, explosions and chaos to accentuate the destruction that the Guajajara Guardians are frequently facing. This serves to make the documentary all the more shocking, as it provides a melancholic reminder of the war we have declared on our own planet and its people. A simple yet effective use of Google Earth helps the audience visualise the severity of demarcation as vibrant green fades to lifeless brown in a fear-inducing image. The film runs for less than half an hour, but nevertheless offers viewers an intimate relationship with the Guardians, as cameras follow them through darkness and barren forests illustrating the reality of their fight. It effectively presents a more personal connection to environmental issues to strike the viewer on a human level.

This documentary does indeed emphasise the environmental crisis we all face, but its main focus is the Indigenous people of Brazil and the threats to their lives and homes. It also quite rightly sheds a light on the heroes putting their lives on the line to protect this precious ecosystem, something mainstream media channels have been failing to do. Using an environmental issue which inevitably impacts on the entire globe the documentary is a genius way of educating audiences (especially western) on cultural matters which would otherwise remain unexplored, bringing lesser known issues concerning Indigenous communities to the surface. As one of the Guardians so poignantly notes, “Our culture is our life, it’s in our blood, and nature is always part of our life” – and this thought-provoking documentary illustrates how deforestation is not only destroying land, but also destroying historical culture and human rights.

Guarding the Forest shows on 12th October at the Native Spirit Indigenous Film Festival at 2-4pm at The Court Room, First Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU. Register here.

Categories: Muslim blogs

The Platform Preview to the BFI London Film Festival, 2019

The Platform - Wed, 02/10/2019 - 11:53

Changing cities and fantastical worlds lie beyond the star-studded galas and British talent on display at this year’s BFI London Film Festival

The 63rd edition of the BFI London Film Festival starts this Wednesday evening with the opening night gala The Personal History of David Copperfield. Starring Dev Patel in the title role, with performances from Ben Wishaw, Hugh Laurie, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Peter Capaldi and Tilda Swinton, this is an exciting choice for a festival that aims to show off British talent. More interesting still is its pairing of Charles Dickens’s Victorian social commentary with Armando Iannucci as director, a man known for the biting political satires The Thick of It, Veep and The Death of Stalin.

Meanwhile, the closing night gala on Sunday 13 October is Martin Scorsese’s epic tale of union boss and mobster Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman. Bringing together Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, we wait to see whether this will be a legendary showstopper of veteran talent or the world’s most extravagant old dudes’ reunion, but let’s be positive and put our money on the former. The third of the big-budget showcases Knives Out, which brings together yet another cast to die for (geddit?) in a whodunnit that assembles Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon and Don Johnson.

As you might be able to tell, the festival veers towards more star-driven entertainment than many other festivals. Other galas we’ll be looking forward to include Greed, which is Michael Winterbottom’s critique of corporate chutzpah starring Steve Coogan, Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s account of a break-up featuring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, and Le Mans ’66, a retro account of a motor racing duo played by Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Meanwhile Taika Waititi follows Thor: Ragnarok with a raucous anti-fascist comedy Jojo Rabbit, set in the final days of the second world war about a boy whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. Among the slightly less crowd-pleasing highlights is Ema from the Chilean director Pablo Larraín, whose career continues to move into ever more poetic abstraction with a reverie on time, memory and dance. Céline Sciamma takes instead an abrupt move away from the setting of her 2014 social drama Girlhood with her new film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Exploring the intensity of female relationships instead in 1760, she shows desires igniting between a young noblewoman and the lady hired to paint her portrait.

We at The Platform would also recommend you to take this opportunity to see some of the films that may create less of a buzz, but that you should definitely try to catch on the big screen. First up is The Last Black Man in San Francisco, an account of gentrification in the city and a highly creative vision of attachment and loss within a changing city. I also enjoyed Lara for reasons I find it harder to put my finger on, but this tale of one lonely woman on her 60th birthday and her difficult relationship with her concert pianist son had me thinking deeply about both undeveloped talent and the passions we all carry within us. Waiting for the Barbarians sees Ciro Guerra encapsulating once more the self-defeating violence of colonialism as he depicts an organised descent into brutality in an unnamed outpost of Britain’s Asian empire. François Ozon likes to probe the mysteries behind the stories we recount; he takes this theme into much darker territory in By the Grace of God, which follows the personal testimonies of campaigners against abuse committed by the Catholic Church in Lyon. Back in America, Clemency takes a close-up view of what is, at times, excruciating detail of the last weeks of a prisoner on death row.

We couldn’t finish this round-up without a few recommendations that pay tribute to the fantastical ability of cinema to conjure up new worlds. So why not go see Nicholas Cage flip out in Color Out of Space, a hallucinatory vision a rural family whose garden is struck by a meteor that brings with it a legion of trippy horrors. Or for more earthbound psychopathy, try Deerskin, in which Jean Dujardin falls so in love with his new deerskin cowboy jacket that he will literally kill for it. The Whistlers sees the Romanian New Wave’s trailblazer Corneliu Porumboiu take on the crime genre in a more action-packed way than his previous Police, Adjective, featuring a corrupt cop who learns to communicate with and work out the plots of an international criminal gang who whistle to each other. And the first English-language movie by Jessica Hausner, Little Joe, imagines an environment in which a new breed of flower is genetically modified to induce happiness in its owner. What begins as a subtle sci-fi meditation on nature and motherhood turns with a consummate lightness of touch into a serious philosophical question about the sincerity of all emotional expressivity.

These are our recommendations for now. We’ll be back with some further reflections once the festival is underway!

The BFI London Film Festival takes place 2 to 13 October 2019.

Photo Credits: The Irishman, Netflix
The Last Black Man in San Francisco, BFI LFF 

Categories: Muslim blogs

Spiritual Grammar and the Danger of Complaining – Imam Zaid Shakir

Imam Zaid Shakir Blog - Tue, 01/10/2019 - 05:51

Complaining (shakawa) to other fallible humans has no part in our religion. Sincere advice (nasiha) does. What is the difference between the two? Imam Zaid Shakir explains.

Usually, the complaint starts with what we describe as the first person, “I”. For example, “I don’t like…” “I don’t feel…” “I want…” “I think….” etc. Therefore, complaining is rooted in one’s concern for him or herself and is therefore amenable to entering a person onto the slippery slope of egoism or narcissism. Complaining has been described as deadly poison by our scholars for this reason. The more we see ourselves, the less we see Allah. Conversely, the more we see Allah, the less we see ourselves. This is why the very heart of spiritual training is the negation of the ego, to say nothing of the id.
One might reasonable ask at this point, “If I don’t look out for myself then who will?” Our Lord provides the answer with great clarity, “Truly, my Protector is Allah, who has revealed the Scripture, and undertakes the affair of the righteous (7:196).”

Our Insurance Policy With The Best Of Providers

When we understand our inherent weakness and the awesome strength of our Lord, we gladly transfer our “insurance policy” to Him. Furthermore, when we can look beyond ourselves and look to our Lord, He alone becomes the one we complain to, for we understand that He alone can assist us.
This focusing on Allah is from the prophetic Sunnah, as illustrated by Ya’qub (Jacob). The Qur’an relates, “I complain of my sorrow and grief to Allah alone, and I know from Allah that which you know not (12:86).” This act of turning to Allah alone is a manifestation of Jacob’s “beautiful patience (sabran jamilan).”
Each of us should constantly ask ourselves, “How beautiful is my patience?” If we find any ugliness in the answer we should work assiduously to beautify it.

A Paradigm Shift

Unlike complaining, nasiha usually starts with the second person, “you”, and is offered with all due sincerity. “You should consider…” “You might want…” “You might not have realized…” “Your tone could have been better…” By turning from the first to the second person, with sincerity, seeking the addressee’s betterment, we are closing the door on our ego and giving priority to others. Until we can do this, we will never attain one of the most noble stations in our religion, ithar (giving preference to others).

The Best Of People

This station is one of the most important foundations of a prosperous Muslim community. How do we know this? From the description of the first community. When the Muhajirin (Emigrants) arrived in Madina to become part of the first independent Muslim community they did not come into a paradise where everyone had abundant wealth to share. The Ansar (Helpers) were largely poor, however, they placed the little they did have at the disposal of their brothers and sisters who had emigrated to them. The Qur’an describes this relationship in the following moving terms, “Those who were settled in the land before them, and had believed, love those who emigrated to them and find in their hearts no need for what they were given. They give preference (yu’thiruna from Ithar) to others, even though they were impoverished. And whosoever is shielded from the greed of their soul, it is they who will prosper (59:9).”

Like that first Muslim society, our community we will not succeed without faith, love, and the ability to give preference to others. To do this the “I” has to disappear and the “you” has to be brought to the forefront. We could elaborate on this at length, however, let us return to our grammar lesson. If we cannot eliminate the perceived first person, I, and elevate the second person, you, we will never truly get to know the perceived third person, “Huwa (Him).”

Complaining, which accentuates and empowers the perceived first person “I”, is one of the greatest barriers to getting to know the perceived third person, “Him.” If you understand this, then you understand spiritual grammar and all of the sentences you write with the pen of your life will be sound. In conclusion, I mentioned the perceived first and third persons, because in reality, and spiritual grammar is rooted in reality, the third is first, the second is always second and the first is third, or last. May we be blessed with understanding.
First published on Imam Zaid Shakir’s blog, New Islamic Directions.

Resources for seekers:

  - Some Prophetic Supplications for Difficulty and Distress

  - Istikhara – A Powerful Prayer When In Need Guidance

  - Du’a – Supplication for one whose affairs have become difficult

  - Should I Maintain the Ties of a Difficult Friendship?

  - The Loss of a Child: Seeking & Turning to Allah in Difficult Times

  - Complaining About Spouses to Parents and Managing Marital Finances

  - How To Attain Focus, Patience And Stillness In A Chaotic World

  - What is Ghiba (Slander)?

  - Dealing With Difficult Decisions

Photo by Tasayu Tasnaphun.

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Categories: Muslim blogs

Poem: Febrile

The Platform - Mon, 30/09/2019 - 09:37

“I am the Empire in the last of its decline.” Paul Verlaine

I am Britain in the final orgasm of its fall,
that watches the confident Scots and Irish
pack their bright new suitcases
and stride palely towards the exit,
like soon-to-be ex-wives
that would be the death of me,
if I weren’t already dead.

The chalk cliffs of Dover
have been sold to a Chinese consortium
and the front pages applaud the deal
as a great victory.

Andrew Loyd Webber has been forced
at pistol point to write additional verses
for Rule Britannia.

I flip the pages of the atlas and imagine
invading places here, there
with the help of aircraft carriers
I no longer have but can still,
just about, picture.

On Gran Canaria withered Englishmen celebrate
their independence and look forward
to having to dress their own bed sores
in second hand bandages they’ll get free
with every glass of Weatherspoon’s
English sparking wine.

Photo Credit: Eric Jones

Categories: Muslim blogs

The Exonerated Five: How Ava DuVernay Captured a Harrowing History and Captivated Netflix Audiences

The Platform - Tue, 24/09/2019 - 01:11

Ava DuVernay’s moving mini-series broke Netflix records and portrayed the very real consequences of a centuries-old racist myth.

Upon learning of the success of her 2019 Netflix mini-series When They See Us, Academy Award-nominated American director Ava DuVernay tweeted, “Imagine believing the world doesn’t care about the real stories of black people… Our stories matter and can move across the globe.”

The four-episode series dramatises the true story of the Central Park Five, the name given to the five black and Latino boys (Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise) wrongly convicted of the brutal rape of the Central Park Jogger, white 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili. Though DuVernay calls her new project “a new truth for a new day”, it tells a tragic yet familiar story of an attempted public lynching.


The historic “myth of the black rapist”

The mini-series has been a commercial and critical success, earning 16 Emmy nominations, including eight in the acting categories and eight in the writing and directing categories. Last night its 21-year-old lead Jharrel Jerome took home the award for Outstanding Lead Actor, and paid tribute to the Exonerated Five in his acceptance speech – all of whom were present in the audience and thanked him with a standing ovation.

When They See Us fits aptly into DuVernay’s retrospective on race relations in the US. Along with Selma (2014) and her 2016 documentary 13th, When They See Us allows DuVernay to assert herself as leading a social justice movement that has continued to re-examine policies targeting black and Latino people in the United States.

With this series, DuVernay also joins a lineage of black women activists like Ida B. Wells and Angela Davis in exploring what Davis calls the “myth of the black rapist”, which has pervaded American society since Reconstruction and the beginnings of the Jim Crow South. Civil rights activist and author of Southern Horrors (1892), The Red Record (1895) and Mob Rule in New Orleans (1900), Ida B. Wells highlights that the image of the black male rapist was used to justify the lynching of members of the black community. Wells writes in The Red Record that when it came to accusing black men of such crimes, “the white people concluded it was unnecessary to wait for the result of the investigation – that it was preferable to hang the accused first and try him afterward” (p.70). Accusing black men of raping white women was, according to Wells, a political and economic tool to combat black upward mobility and citizenship. Eighty years later, University of California professor and political activist Angela Davis wrote of the institutionalisation of this myth in her book Women, Race, and Class (1983). She asserts, “the rape charge turned out to be the most powerful of several attempts to justify the lynching of Black people” (p.185). As American society was built on white male supremacy, Davis finds that the enduring fiction of black men as rapists continues to legitimise excessive violence in defence of women’s virtue (p.187).

This myth of the black male rapist reverberates throughout 20th- and 21st-century American politics and culture from the true stories of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teens falsely accused in Alabama of raping two white women in 1931, to the brutal murder of 14-year old Emmett Till in 1955, falsely accused of flirting with a white woman in Mississippi. The miscarriage of justice during the Scottsboro Boys trial and Till’s murder, and the initial acquittal of his killers, still symbolise the long tradition of racial bias in the criminal justice system. Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning best seller To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) examines racism in the criminal justice system in its depiction of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama, while James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), adapted as Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-nominated film in 2018, explores the enduring love between Fonny and Trish after a white police officer frames Fonny for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman.

Along with the omnipresent myth of the black male rapist in the American psyche, decades of high unemployment, police corruption and mob violence were combined to galvanise the public against the Five as well. New York City’s rising crime rate throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s was originally attributed to police corruption and rising unemployment in the mid-‘70s, pushing the city towards bankruptcy. The late-‘70s crime wave, fuelled by the David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz murders, blackouts and lootings, was followed by the crack cocaine epidemic and racially-motivated mob violence of the ‘80s. Black MTA worker Willie Turks was killed by a mob of white men in Brooklyn in 1982; Michael Griffin was murdered in 1986 while being attacked by white men in the predominantly white community of Howard Beach, Queens; and a mob of white male teens in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, targeted and then shot 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins in 1986. The hysteria around the myth of the black male rapist and surrounding black and Latino men in general is as old as the United States itself.

Seven years after Ken and Sarah Burns’ documentary The Central Park Five, Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us provides a gripping indictment of a nation still captive to racist mass hysteria. The true events of When They See Us echo many of the real and fictionalised stories that continue to shape black and Latino communities in the US. DuVernay tactfully uses Donald Trump’s role in the persecution of the Five to link his manipulation of the myth of the black rapist to his political campaign and presidency 30 years later. During the trial, real estate developer Donald Trump spent $85,000 placing ads in four newspapers calling for the lynching of the Five, with the exclamation, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY! BRING BACK THE POLICE!” In 2015, President Trump would rely not only on the myth of the black rapist, but he would also invoke the myth of the Mexican rapist sent illegally to the US to begin his presidential campaign. In her illustration of Trump’s central role in the miscarriage of justice against the Five, DuVernay signals that this new story is a centuries-long call for the lynching of black and Latino men from those within the highest echelons of power.


Old stories of injustice for a new day

When They See Us succeeds not because of its “new truth for a new day” nor for its harrowing depiction of the US criminal (in)justice system. Rather, the mini-series is most spell-binding because of its intimate portrayal of the boys’ commitment to each other, their fraying relationships with their communities, and the inner workings of their personal lives within a penal system and society that has abused them.

The first two episodes sweep the boys through the night of the rape, where they all gather with a large group of peers at the park on the night of Meili’s brutalisation. The episodes then subject viewers to the chaos of the police’s reckless search for the attackers and dramatise what is the most difficult part of the Five’s story: their confession to the crime, despite later claiming their innocence. The first and second episodes reflect The Innocence Project’s findings that “in the past 25 years, 38% of exonerations of crimes allegedly committed by youth involved false confessions… when you are imposing those techniques on an individual who is young, who is intellectually vulnerable, the capacity of the person to withstand the process is easily overcome.”

In the mini-series, Linda Fairstein, attorney, author and inspiration for the character of Olivia Benson in Law and Order: SVU, is positioned at the epicentre of a plan to scapegoat the boys through utilising deceptive confessionary techniques. DuVernay depicts Fairstein (played Felicity Huffman) as instigating the boys’ false confessions and exemplifying the worst-case scenario of weaponising the real tragedy of Meili’s brutal rape to solidify her authority within the Manhattan sex crimes unit. Despite no physical evidence tying the boys to the crime, they are convicted and sentenced to between 5 and 15 years in juvenile detention or prison. It was only Matias Reyes’ 2002 confession – not continued police investigations – that exonerated the boys of their conviction.

The third and fourth parts of the series balance DuVernay’s social commentary on the savagery of the US criminal justice systems with the boys’ personal and familial relationships, as they are released from confinement and grapple with their public images as rapists. Antron (Caleel Harris) confides in his mother, played by Emmy-nominated Marsha Stephanie Blake, with, “I feel like the whole world hate us.” Blake’s Linda McCray compassionately responds, “I love you enough to make up for everybody.” These poignant, and at times fragile, personal connections transform When They See Us from a show that is agonising to watch to one that enthrals, as the series draws the audience into the inner lives of these boys, their communities and their families.

These more intimate moments shape the second half of the mini-series and reach its crescendo with Jharrel Jerome’s Korey Wise, the eldest of the Five, who at 16 was sentenced not to juvenile detention but adult prison. His relationship with his mother and his connection to his transgender sister Marci Wise (played by Isis King) are some of the most memorable arcs in the mini-series, succeeding in aligning different kinds of persecution, alienation and courage. Jerome, now the winner of the Emmy, gives a heartbreaking portrayal of a young man trapped by the system, yet ultimately able to reclaim a part of his soul still untouched by the brutality around him.

For audiences unfamiliar with the indelible mark the myth of the black male rapist has left on American society, When They See Us moves people across the globe to see and protect black humanity. The series is also an opportunity for the Exonerated Five, as they are consciously re-named in the post-show Oprah interview – an essential afterword to the mini-series – to bring their experiences to new audiences and advocate for much-needed criminal justice reforms. Yet for those fully aware of the depth of this history and those who continue to live in fear of persecution by law enforcement, When They See Us may be triggering and leave us craving for more.

Photo Credit: Netflix

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