Is Oprah’s “When They See Us” Trauma Porn???[Updated June 2019]

In 2012, a documentary set out to reacquaint and acquaint us with 5 young men wrongly convicted for the rape of a New York City investment banker.

For whatever reasons, this documentary actually presenting actual interviews and footage of five young boys being tortured into confessing a crime they never committed was not received widely enough. It would not be until May of 2019 that a wider public would cause a Google search of “Central Park Five” to be limited to a discussion of Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay’s executively produced, “When They See Us”.

Those lived experiences of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise(nee Kharey) are reflected in dramatization and reenactment. This is DuVernay’s second time using US Black Mass Incarceration to influence US Black voting during an election season like a Russian bot. This time around she exchanged interviews with actual people for a robust cast of actresses and actors, and reduced statistical analysis to Donald Trump clips, Daily News and Fox News logos.

In this essay we ask and seek an answer to the question of, Is “When They See Us” Black Trauma Porn?


“Black Trauma Porn” ::: Good, Bad, Or Other???

Two ideas must be established first. One, Antron, Kevin, Yusef, Raymond, and Korey’s story is a HipHop story. Two, “Black Trauma Porn” is a phrase that can be just as confusing and overstuffed with contrasting meanings as “neoliberalism”.

When I state “this is HipHop history”, I mean it is an extension of a movement native to New York City’s underground developed as a response to New York City’s conditions and treatment of said underground. A part of this overall HipHop history is a fact that Oprah Winfrey would not have any authentic HipHop voices on her show for decades, years including 1988 when she hosted Donald Trump on her show, and 1989 when Trisha Meili was raped by Matias Reyes. Oprah Winfrey’s executive producer role in this production taints it and any images contained in this production that evoke pain, depression, or anger place it in a position of exploitation.

One of the better and most suitable definitions I have received for Black Trauma Porn is from a reader who wrote,”Anything that centers black oppression/violence that’s profited from.” I would extend that sentiment to media involving suffering of a Black person that is used exploitatively.

Now that we have a couple of base lines to begin from, let us begin…


Oprah, Outrage, And Our Historic Amnesia

A question that I would raise with regard to shows like this are, “who gets to pull on our heart strings?” While many lambaste this particular body of work as “Black trauma porn,” I am much more concerned about Oprah’s inability to address her relationship with personalities she attacks through her executively produced shows.

In episode two of this series, a keen use of media as exposition occurs. As a means of establishing the zeitgiest surrounding New York City as it relates to this case, clips of Donald Trump are shown. This works for two purposes. Yes, it assists our storytellers in exposition, that is, in establishing setting and tone. However, it also causes this entire series to become one long anti-Trump as president commercial. My concern here is that in singling out Donald Trump’s voice as tone of those times without addressing others in similar fashion, it creates a lack of nuance. Also, Oprah Winfrey’s involvment in this production as well as the production, “After Neverland”, both refuse to tackle and discuss Winfrey’s intimate relationship with personalities being critiqued.

Prior to 1989, Oprah Winfrey is seen hosting Donald Trump on her extremely popular show. Also, she not only hosts Donald Trump after 1989 on her show, she also invites his entire family on her show in its final season. Her show’s paucity of Black HipHop entertainers coupled with her own relationship to the same media machine that this production seeks to castigate and blame should have been highlighted throughout this second episode to provide a more accurate understanding of not only “bigoted” voices of that time, but also those Blacks who were also complicit and in agreement with Donald Trump.

There is simply a lack of honesty here that would have been a buttress had it been considered here. This obvious bias damages this work as document, and reduces it beyond just dramatization to political exploitation.

As we have covered in various discussions of Black Media Trust, propaganda while a loaded term, here is used to mean,”A piece of fiction designed to make the viewer adopt a certain point of view”.

In the same way that episode one works to convince us that New York City’s justice department was inept, corrupt, and violently abusive to children from its police to its district attorney, episode two works to remind viewers of Donald Trump’s media statements vis a vis this case in leiu of his decades long relationship with Oprah Winfrey — an executive producer of this series– and her own anti-Black urban male sentiments displayed by a decades long paucity of HipHop performers on her show.

In that same way that episodes three and four work to show us how Black Women in these young boys and then young men’s lives committed themselves to be anchors and a sense of hope, episode two is designed to make viewers adopt an anti-Trump position without acknowledging Oprah Winfrey’s decades long relationship with Donald Trump that existed before April 19, 1989 and continued at least until after her eponymous hit show’s last season in which Donald Trump appeared with his whole family in February of 2011.

In that same way that episode three and four also are designed to show differences between Antron’s, Kevin’s, Yusef’s, and Raymond’s experiences incarcerated as compared to Korey’s experiences to that degree expressed by Korey’s statements in interviews that “he is not one of the central park five, is the one”, episode two is designed to make the viewer adopt a position that frames Donald Trump as punching bag and scapegoat for a posture on this case that not only he had, but much of that city had, most of its media machinery had, and more than likely a posture that even Oprah Winfrey herself had at that time.

It is difficult not score this series as exploitatively “Black Trauma Porn” due to this episodes incessant efforts to make Trump a punching bag and scapegoat. The inability of its show runners to directly name The New York Times as they directly named The Daily News and FOX News proves their work to be dishonest. The New York Times have been shown in an early 2000s media content analysis to have been first media outlet to refer to Antron, Kevin, Yusef, Raymond, and Korey as “wilding”. It is quite possible that this phrase “wilding” was coined by them as a means to criminalize and dehumanize Black and Latino youth activities.

Jim Dwyer who was writing for the New York Times stated in the documentary mentioned above that, “I wish I had been more skeptical.” Oversights such as these while saturating scenes with logos of specific outlets and footage of specific personalities reeks of agenda to attack while protecting others also complicit in creating atmospheres of media hostility towards these young men.

Black Women Characters As Anchors

Despite its lack of honesty, its writing room definitely provided this Netflix mini-series with tons of heart and emotion. I was pleasantly surprised by the performances of Marsha Stephanie Blake in the role of “Linda McCray”, Kylie Bunbury and her portrayal of “Angie Richardson”, Aunjanue Ellis cast as “Sharonne Salaam”, and Niecy Nash who played “Delores Wise”.

Each of these actresses demonstrated a range of emotions associated with shared suffering and persistence under pressure. As a device of exposition, writers DuVernay and Breece(and all those other folks sipping lattes in that writer’s room) have characters “Sharonne Salaam” and “Delores Wise” discuss class in a way that is often misrepresented or just done horribly in screen reenactments and representations.

Women are obviously considered a target audience by DuVernay and Winfrey. Their choice to tell Antron’s story as a family drama between his father and his mother, expanding Kevin’s background(as well as his relationship with Yusef) by a visit from all of his sisters, and a Precious-esque performance by Neicy Nash of Korey’s mother all work as anchors of humanization, and other political effects. Kylie Bunbury’s interpretation of not only “Angie Richardson” — but also as older sisters of Black males incarcerated for crimes they did not commit — was not only compelling as a performance, it was inspiring.

However cliche and overdone this particular device is, it works. Yes, I did feel it made this production more soap opera than documentary, but I understood its effect, purpose, and objective. And sure, it does not render this work any less exploitative. But, this exploitative element is primarily an anti-Trump campaign aimed at possibly contemporary USA’s most anti-Trump demographic, Black Women.

This is all to say that I did not dislike this miniseries. I dislike its heavy handed, bias, cowardly approach to media messages surrounding this case. I dislike Winfrey’s inability to be accountable for her own involvment in aiding and abetting that media atmosphere. If Winfrey was not involved, however, I would still say that this is a form of Black Trauma Porn. Yet I would be more willing to defend a necessary bit of Black Trauma Porn when its purpose is less redundant.

A Rushed Bit Of Propaganda

While Antron, Kevin, Yusef, Raymond, and Korey’s individual stories are obviously intertwined, this drama miniseries uses a powerful portrayal of Black and Brown Women as exposition to atomize their tales. While it could be argued that showing Antron’s rejection by a Black Women calling him a rapist fulfills aspects of Black Trauma Porn, I do think it is important to show his relationship with his mother. These scenes where family are injected not only fulfill a role of explanation, but also provide this particular telling with some form of resolution.

Resolution for Antron, Kevin, Yusef, Raymond and Korey in their own individual lives might be difficult to come by. However, as a for television product, showing them holding hands outside a rally used to name drop Al Sharpton’s involvment in their case felt limiting. In this regard, it is once again difficult not to score this as Black Trauma Porn.

It is very heavy handed in its political agenda. For a miniseries with four shows, it feels rushed. It feels as if it has to beat a certain event from happening, and in this rush, it employs just enough details to push a particular framing of this time and events.