Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us has become a cultural talking point around the country. The story of the Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino children sentenced to years in jail and lambasted by prosecutors, the press, and a certain sitting political official for a rape they did not commit, the series has been moving, enraging, and captivating audiences around the country. Of course, if you’ve seen the show, you’ll know that the most controversial figure is that of Linda Fairstein, the Sex Crimes prosecutor who oversaw the boys’ coerced confessions and ignored key facts that resulted in 15 years of hell for a group of 14-16 year olds. Played by then-beloved actress, present day-convict Felicity Huffman, Fairstein comes off as a demonic gorgon, caught up in her own delusions and self-righteousness to enact racist justice upon the boys. The show has spurred Internet backlash, and Fairstein, currently a successful plane lit crime novelist (gee, she gets paid to make up fake crimes now? That seems a little on the nose), has seen her book deals dry up and been asked to step down from several councils she’s been sitting on (she previously had a literary award withdrawn after its members challenged the decision). And because controversy sells, and she desired an outlet to clear her name, Fairstein recently published an article in the Wall Street Journal (I’m not linking to it because I really don’t think she deserves it) calling the show a “basket of lies,” “so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication.” As people discuss her article, her portrayal, and the case itself, a few questions find themselves brimming to the surface, all surrounding the wider question, “What is the duty of an artist when portraying a real-life figure accused of horrific misdeeds?” Is Fairstein truly being given the short shrift? Is the show’s portrayal of her unfair or inaccurate? And what should we make of Fairstein’s response and future? The answers, in quick, undetailed order, are “No, kinda, no, and who cares?”
Now, I want to take a moment to discuss how Fairstein is handled in the miniseries, because it has been a sticking point for me since watching it a few weeks ago. I will get into this more in my upcoming review, but one of my (few) misgivings with the project is how the show portrays Fairstein. Oh, don’t get me wrong, she absolutely deserves what she gets – by most accounts, the botched case were her doing, and the show is not inaccurate in its portrayal of her inflated ego. What bothers me is how cartoonish she is when compared to other characters. One of the most important components of any project, fictional or otherwise, is the villains have to be three-dimensional. No matter how evil their plot, you have to understand where they’re coming from and what drives them to make such horrific mistakes/misdeeds. Voldemort felt superior due to his magical gifts, Hitler needed an outlet for his superiority complex, Hans Gruber was the smartest person in the room and wanted to see if it could pay, and Edwin Epps finds himself caught between a societal structure of racism and his own sickening feelings towards his own slave. None of these characters are excuse their heinous acts, but we at least understand their psychology. From the moment Huffman’s Fairstein arrives onscreen, she’s immediately portrayed as some sort of over-the-top monstrosity with bad bangs and seething venom. She hisses line after line calling the boys “animals,” ordering the police to obtain the confessions by any means necessary, screwing over her own case by changing facts to match her own clearly-fake reality, and refusing to see the African-American community as human. We see a lot of over-the-top racism in the performance, but the one thing we never see is why. Why did she suddenly decide to throw everything away on this one case? How did a 41-year-old destined to become the next D.A. botch a case so badly? What was it about this case that drove her to find the culprit, or culprits, “by any means necessary?” And if you say racism, then you live in a very nice world where every answer is happily simple. I get that she’s bigoted, it doesn’t explain why these boys on this particular case. And even though I personally know that her cause of choice is domestic violence and the abuse of women, thus giving her motivation to go after this brutal rape with extra gusto, the show doesn’t give us any of that. And even if it did, it would only provide us some reasoning as to why this portrayal of Fairstein is the way she is. I’m not saying it ruined the show for me. And I’m certainly not saying “Linda Fairstein’s the real victim here.” I’m just saying that the writing for Fairstein needed to be a whole lot stronger, and that in terms of her umbrage over her personal portrayal, maybe she has a bit of a point?
Of course, there’s a perfectly good reason for why the miniseries handles Fairstein as a character so poorly, and it ties into the entire reason her claims now are bullsh*t, and why we shouldn’t take her concerns into account. Ava DuVernay is many things, but above all, she is a journalist. She may, in fact, be the most journalistic filmmaker to ever live. Having spent her college years and early twenties in news rooms, she has developed a knack for interviews, fact-checking, and finding the best angle to tell a story. And one of the most unique facts about her as a filmmaker is that, no matter what angle or agenda she approaches her story or subject matter from, she gives every character and subject a fair chance. George Wallace in Selma is portrayed as a man who is desperate to maintain power, a victim of the system more than an out-and-out racist. In 13th, a film that could have just been DuVernay and subjects like Angela Davis preaching to the choir, DuVernay reaches out to Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist to discuss where they were coming from during the more troublesome moments of the 80s and 90s crime reforms. And even in When They See Us, DuVernay gives ample time to figures like Elizabeth Lederer, Michael Sheehan, and Robert Morgenthau to show where they were coming from during the investigation. Despite working as part of a corrupt system, and saying some pretty awful sh*t in the show, you can at least understand where they’re all coming from, and none of them come across as a cartoonish villain. So what gives? Why did Fairstein get the shaft?
Well, there’s one key element that Fairstein hasn’t discussed that DuVernay has established in previous interviews – and one that actually provides two explanations for the portrayal. DuVernay has a consistent habit of reaching out to every living character or family member she can for her stories, and if she can use the information at hand, then she will do so. She did it with Wallace’s family, she did it with Lyndon Johnson’s family, and she did so here, with everyone connected to the Central Park Five/Trisha Meili case. This includes prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer, head detective Michael Sheehan, and victim Trisha Meili (Meili declined to be interviewed, understandably). However, when DuVernay reached out to Linda Fairstein, something interesting happened. Fairstein demanded that she be paid exorbitant amounts for the interview, the right to make changes to the script, and that she be portrayed as a hero trying to take down five corrupt youths. DuVernay, understandably, said no, and so Fairstein was never interviewed. Now, without Fairstein’s input, obviously the show couldn’t take her unique perspective into account, and therefore her views were not heard. However, there is also a secondary effect of this decision, and one that Fairstein could not have foreseen – and one that explains the one-dimensionality of her character in the show. Knowing they were in the wrong, there is no way those other members of the prosecution would say anything to implicate themselves in the worst of the cover-up. So why not choose a scapegoat? Someone who was loud and abrasive during the investigation, who openly condemned the settlement upon exoneration, who repeatedly lies when questioned, and who refused to sit down to interview for the miniseries? That’s right, I’m suggesting the other prosecutors and investigators painted Fairstein as the main persecutor in the trial, and without Fairstein’s own input to guide her portrayal, DuVernay used what she was given to create the character: a horrific ringleader without remorse or reasoning.
And even if DuVernay had gotten through to Fairstein, and given her a fair shake in telling her story, whose to say that the story would have been anywhere near the truth? Even in Linda Fairstein’s Wall Street Journal editorial, she can’t help but lie. She claims that she agreed the rape conviction should have been overturned, and it was the other convictions she was against overturning. This is, in fact, a lie, as she stated at the time – and up until a few days ago, in a now-deleted Twitter post – that the boys were actually accomplices of Matias Reyes and the city was making an error in releasing them. In the same article, she is once again proven false in her claims that “Upon realizing Yusef Salaam was 15, I immediately stopped the investigation.” According to The Village Voice, court documents, Yusef Salaam, Sharonne Salaam, and other investigators, Fairstein attempted to stonewall Mrs. Salaam until it became apparent she could do so no longer. She claims that there were semen stains found on both the boys and at the crime scene, when in reality none of their DNA was found anywhere, and the traces that were found in their underwear were minuscule at best…almost like the underwear belonged to a bunch of horny teenage boys. Wow, great sleuth work there, Miss Marple. She claims the miniseries ignores the horrific “wildings” going on earlier that night, when the miniseries opens with a pretty accurate reenactment of what court documents – and the five victims – state: that the boys were part of the mob, were guilty of breaking bottles and general vandalism, were witnesses, but not a part of, harassing a couple on a tandem bicycle, and were aware of, but not present for, an assault of an older gentleman. The show does not shy away from any of this, and even if they had been guilty of some level of park fights or some other high misdemeanor/general felony, none of these crimes carried anything close to the sentences dealt out by the courts. And finally, in her Wall Street Journal piece, she happened to play up her involvement in defending victims of sex abuse – a true passion of hers, by all accounts…except when it was revealed in 2017 by the New York Post that she called in favors as a member of Harvey Weinstein’s legal team to have his sexual assault charges thrown out in order to secure a movie deal. She also had charges thrown out against Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011.
So what should we take away from all this, if anything at all? At the end of the day, I have but one pearl of wisdom, along with a final stinger. People need to realize that TV shows, miniseries, and films are not real life. While documentaries may hold information and sort out details in a realistic manner, anything scripted by writers, no matter how detail-oriented, will absolutely be fictionalized to some extent. When dealing with real-life people, writers and directors should be careful about portraying any figure, no matter how good or evil, in a nuanced, intelligent light – not just for their sake, but for the sake of an audience, who will only be hindered by black-and-white images of perfect heroes and villains. That being said, there’s only so much an author can do when dealing with someone who is certifiably a pathological liar with a God complex. I do not weep for Linda Fairstein. I also don’t necessarily root for her demise; neither does DuVernay, for that matter, who notes that “…it would be a tragedy if this story and the telling of it came down to one woman being punished for what she did because it’s not about her. She is part of a system.” And she’s right. But knowing she is losing book deals and being fired from councils – especially for those involving sex abuse considering what she did to Nafissatou Diallo and Ambra Batillana Gutierrez – feels pretty just. And for those quick to spring to her defense, ask yourselves this: were you as willing to cut the benefit of the doubt to five young boys who were subjected to inhumane punishment (and that’s before the alleged abuse during questioning) for a crime they did not commit?