The frame-up, prosecution, and years-long imprisonment of the young men from Harlem—boys, really—who became known as the Central Park Five might be described as a miscarriage of justice, in the sense that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a nuclear mishap. In a 2012 book on the subject, Sarah Burns peels back layer after layer of misconduct, negligence, and willful blindness by the New York City police and Manhattan district attorney’s office—layer after layer of lynch-mob excitement among much of the white press and public—until the underlying rawness bleeds into the semblance of an officially conducted hate crime. For those who want to look at the facts coldly, a PBS documentary film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, also released in 2012, is available for streaming.

Circumstances have changed in some ways, but the story is as appallingly timely as ever. In a 1989 New York City electric with fear and racial animosity—the fear sparked by high levels of street violence, the racial animosity stoked by reckless politicians, journalists, and loudmouths—the rape and near-fatal bludgeoning in Central Park of a young, white, affluent jogger mandated immediate government retribution. And the government had candidates ready-made for punishment: a large, loose gaggle of dark-skinned kids, many of them raucous, some violent, who had been roaming the park that night.

To convert five of those kids into felons required only brutal police interrogations, pursued without respect for either truth or rules of conduct, combined with the hell-bent agenda of the head of the Manhattan DA’s sex crimes unit, Linda Fairstein, who seemed to regard material evidence as a mere encumbrance. To win convictions required only the bumbling of multiple disorganized defense attorneys, combined with a public atmosphere poisoned by tabloids and your Eyewitness News team. The man who raped and almost killed the jogger was left free to roam while five boys, ages 14 to 16, went to prison for years for a crime they did not commit, then struggled painfully after release to resume their lives. In 2002, after new evidence emerged and the district attorney’s office reexamined the case, New York State Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Tejada vacated the convictions.

That’s what you can learn—and seethe over—by watching the documentary, reading the book, or sitting down in a library to study other available sources. What can you get by turning on Netflix and watching When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s four-part dramatization of the story?

A sense of duration, for one thing. Everything about the case was bound up with the passage of time—the contested number of minutes when the jogger and the five could have been in proximity, the unconscionable number of hours endured by unaccompanied minors under police browbeating, the anxiety-ridden weeks of preparing for trial, the years that the accused ground out in prison and their families in devastated homes. Pass from the what of the subject to the how of its representation and you see that a consciousness of duration also dominates the movie. (Let’s call the production by its rightful name, not the Netflix category “limited series.”) Everything in the film’s working-out is conditioned by DuVernay’s having about three times the length of a normal feature in which to tell her story.

The luxury has been good for her. A filmmaker of laudable ambitions but occasionally tendentious means, which can leave her straddling the line between solid and stodgy, DuVernay has used her extra time with a flair she has too seldom exercised before, sprawling when she wants to draw out suspense or deepen emotion, telescoping when she wants to cut short your breath.

It’s crucial, for example, that you experience the excruciating length of the police interrogations. DuVernay dwells on them for much of Part 1, cross-cutting freely to show you the differences among the boys and their families and the near sameness of the sense of futility that closed in. In some ways, it’s her tendentious side that moves her to prolong these descents into despairing false confessions. By getting you to feel how resistance cracks into acquiescence, she rebuts the government’s case even before her on-screen prosecutors present it. But perhaps more important, the lengthily elaborated interrogations enable her to bring off a quiet coup at the end of Part 1: the scene where the accused boys are at last put together in a glaringly lit holding cell—for some, it’s the first time they meet—and apologize for having implicated one another.

Even more affecting are the fluid, time-collapsing transitions in Part 3, in which she pans across scenes in prison and transforms the youths, one by one, into bulked-up men. The device in itself is not novel. But the way it makes the pit of your stomach drop away is expertly judged, with DuVernay allowing enough of a pause after each shock so you can almost recover before she hits you with the next. Here she has no message to deliver, no argument to advance. Her main purpose is emotional: to make incalculable sorrow real, again and again.

With two of her characters, though—Raymond Santana Jr. and Korey Wise—DuVernay expands time for yet another purpose: narrative complication. Wise was the only one who had reached the age of 16 at the time of the rape and so was tried as an adult and sentenced to the full hell of a penitentiary. Santana was the only one who broke the law after his release on probation—broke it for real this time—and was thrown back into prison. These distinctions give DuVernay good reason to focus on Wise and Santana and an opportunity to make the grand structure she’s designing a little more eclectic and asymmetrical through the addition of two stylistically distinct spaces.

(Photo by Atsushi Nishijima / Netflix)

In the narrative room reserved for Santana (played as an adult by the long-faced, tensely coiled Freddy Miyares), DuVernay tells a tale about the victory of frustration over prudence. Taken in upon parole by his endlessly loving, hopelessly ineffectual father (a touching John Leguizamo), Santana has to endure the insults of a furious stepmother, the indignities of quarters suitable only for a child, and the almost laughable system of barriers erected between felons and the jobs they need. When Santana eventually chooses to push back, he does so in a high-risk form of resistance that DuVernay presents as less than admirable and almost heroic.

Santana gets extra attention, but DuVernay nevertheless intercuts his extended story with those of three of the other judicial victims. But for the fifth, Wise, she holds back, teasing the viewer for a long time with his absence and then devoting the majority of Part 4 to a sustained narrative of his suffering. I might summarize this tale as the temptation of a saint in the wilderness. Of the five, Wise was the least prepared mentally and emotionally to endure even a juvenile prison, let alone Riker’s Island and Attica. DuVernay makes his experiences into a story of bafflement, fear, deliberate self-isolation (Wise prefers solitary confinement to the dangers of the general population), and retreat into fantasy. It’s also a story of grace, as manifested through the unexpected kindness of a white guard, and of the persistence of a heartbreakingly fragile hope.

Narratives about holy fools are notoriously difficult to pull off. I attribute the profound success of this one to DuVernay’s faith in a remarkable actor, Jharrel Jerome. (You might remember him as the teenage best friend in Moonlight.) He is the only member of the cast who plays his character as both a child and a man. If that sounds difficult, imagine doing it without betraying for even a moment that you’re giving a performance.

To return to my original question: What you get from DuVernay’s film is an almost physical sense of presence from Jerome. Beyond that, you get sharp, indelible characterizations across the board (especially Niecy Nash as Wise’s mother, Delores; Aunjanue Ellis as Yusef Salaam’s mother, Sharon; and Michael Kenneth Williams as Antron McCray’s tortured father, Bobby). You get an account of the Central Park Five case told as if from within the families—which means told not just with unshakable knowledge that this miscarriage is no aberration but also with a crushing grief among the adults and a sense of guilt about their inability to shield their children. When They See Us delivers all this with a new level of directorial expressiveness from DuVernay, enriched by the moodily nuanced cinematography of Bradford Young.

And then, of course, there’s the tendentiousness. DuVernay’s screenplay (assisted by Robin Swicord and Attica Locke) does not entirely resist the impulse to score points. Many of them are scored against Fairstein, played by Felicity Huffman in a late-’80s version of western villain wardrobe (her raincoat might as well be a gunslinger’s duster) and a scowl that could raise bloody welts. In case you don’t understand why five dark-skinned kids are about to be immolated on a prosecutorial altar, the dialogue written for Fairstein will tell you. The word “animals” comes up. The remark “We are not in control” leaves the definition of “we” unspecified and screamingly obvious.

I don’t want to make excuses for Fairstein. I just want to point out that a filmmaker more certain of her audience and her own powers might have modulated the late scene in which a new prosecutor, charged with reexamining the case, sits down with Fairstein just long enough to excoriate her, speaking ostensibly for herself but really on behalf of the filmmakers, the audience, and all right-thinking people. And it’s not enough for the character to mouth accusations of malicious, deliberate incompetence. DuVernay makes her open a bag and pull out some of the best-selling thrillers that Fairstein wrote in a second career.

It’s too much. Whatever wrongs Fairstein committed, she had a right to try her luck at being an author. And you can say this much for her novels, as distinct from her case against the Central Park Five: They were labeled as fiction.

At once artfully coy and unabashedly confessional, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is a memory film about all-consuming, disastrous first love, set in the England of the early 1980s. It’s exceptionally fine and as paradoxical as any movie I’ve seen in a while—wholly submerged in the skin of its young protagonist, an apprentice filmmaker named Julie (Honor Swinton Rose), and yet as coolly distanced as the Hitchcock movies Julie hears about when she shows up for film school. The clash of perspectives would be enough to make you cross-eyed if Hogg didn’t resolve them so exquisitely in a strange and strangely calming view of a landscape that repeats throughout the film—hardly even a landscape, you might say, but a picture of the sky with a few treetops poking up at the bottom of the frame. I should point out that this view, too, is designed as something of a puzzle, but I’ll get to that later.

For the moment, let’s consider a different kind of clash. The Souvenir begins with a succession of black-and-white still photographs of the decayed shipbuilding town of Sunderland, overlaid with the sounds of a radio interview with a young woman—Hogg back in the day?—describing a film she’d like to make there. She has in mind the story of a poor young boy and his obsessive, fearful love for his mother, who he knows must die someday. As The Souvenir jumps into its narrative, you quickly learn that this is Julie’s film-school project and that nobody believes she can make it work. Julie is a daughter of the landed gentry (Byrne looks like a rose fresh from her parents’ estate) who knows as much about the working-class north as she does about life on Mars.

But something in her does seem to know about loving death, or wanting the vertigo of loving in death’s shadow. Enter Anthony (Tom Burke), a slightly older, brutishly handsome denizen of art galleries, opera houses, and the sort of London restaurant that might be emptied later in the evening to accommodate a duchess’s grand ball. He has a languid, disdainfully playful Oxbridge manner, a chalk-stripe suit, and a purported job in the Foreign Office. As Julie will eventually learn, he also has a recurring need for infusions of her cash, no doubt explained by the heroin habit she is too unworldly to detect. But that part is almost secondary. What matters is that he assures her at the outset that she’s fragile and lost and always will be lost. Sold.

Hitchcock, the film professor says, used to suggest as much as tell, elide as much as show. (Not once in the Psycho shower scene do you see the knife penetrate flesh.) While Julie contemplates this artistic method, Hogg practices it and then some, narrating The Souvenir in fragments and ellipses, confounding the chronology, implying as much as she says about how and why Julie is sucked into an infinitely hurtful love, and then, just for a moment, giving you a flash of the knife’s tip drawing blood. If The Souvenir were not so cerebral, I suppose its pain would be too much to bear. As it is, you assemble the pieces mentally as you’re watching and then grieve over them later, in your memory.

And that odd, repeated landscape shot? Hogg waits until the very end to reveal its place in the puzzle. It has to do with Julie’s education in filmmaking. It has nothing to do with filmmaking and everything to do with her loss. Like The Souvenir, it turns out to be a thing of beauty and a sadness forever.

The frame-up, prosecution, and years-long imprisonment of the young men from Harlem—boys, really—who became known as the Central Park Five might be described as a miscarriage of justice, in the sense that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a nuclear mishap. In a 2012 book on the subject, Sarah Burns peels back layer after layer of misconduct, negligence, and willful blindness by the New York City police and Manhattan district attorney’s office—layer after layer of lynch-mob excitement among much of the white press and public—until the underlying rawness bleeds into the semblance of an officially conducted hate crime. For those who want to look at the facts coldly, a PBS documentary film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, also released in 2012, is available for streaming.

Circumstances have changed in some ways, but the story is as appallingly timely as ever. In a 1989 New York City electric with fear and racial animosity—the fear sparked by high levels of street violence, the racial animosity stoked by reckless politicians, journalists, and loudmouths—the rape and near-fatal bludgeoning in Central Park of a young, white, affluent jogger mandated immediate government retribution. And the government had candidates ready-made for punishment: a large, loose gaggle of dark-skinned kids, many of them raucous, some violent, who had been roaming the park that night.

To convert five of those kids into felons required only brutal police interrogations, pursued without respect for either truth or rules of conduct, combined with the hell-bent agenda of the head of the Manhattan DA’s sex crimes unit, Linda Fairstein, who seemed to regard material evidence as a mere encumbrance. To win convictions required only the bumbling of multiple disorganized defense attorneys, combined with a public atmosphere poisoned by tabloids and your Eyewitness News team. The man who raped and almost killed the jogger was left free to roam while five boys, ages 14 to 16, went to prison for years for a crime they did not commit, then struggled painfully after release to resume their lives. In 2002, after new evidence emerged and the district attorney’s office reexamined the case, New York State Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Tejada vacated the convictions.

That’s what you can learn—and seethe over—by watching the documentary, reading the book, or sitting down in a library to study other available sources. What can you get by turning on Netflix and watching When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s four-part dramatization of the story?

A sense of duration, for one thing. Everything about the case was bound up with the passage of time—the contested number of minutes when the jogger and the five could have been in proximity, the unconscionable number of hours endured by unaccompanied minors under police browbeating, the anxiety-ridden weeks of preparing for trial, the years that the accused ground out in prison and their families in devastated homes. Pass from the what of the subject to the how of its representation and you see that a consciousness of duration also dominates the movie. (Let’s call the production by its rightful name, not the Netflix category “limited series.”) Everything in the film’s working-out is conditioned by DuVernay’s having about three times the length of a normal feature in which to tell her story.

The luxury has been good for her. A filmmaker of laudable ambitions but occasionally tendentious means, which can leave her straddling the line between solid and stodgy, DuVernay has used her extra time with a flair she has too seldom exercised before, sprawling when she wants to draw out suspense or deepen emotion, telescoping when she wants to cut short your breath.

It’s crucial, for example, that you experience the excruciating length of the police interrogations. DuVernay dwells on them for much of Part 1, cross-cutting freely to show you the differences among the boys and their families and the near sameness of the sense of futility that closed in. In some ways, it’s her tendentious side that moves her to prolong these descents into despairing false confessions. By getting you to feel how resistance cracks into acquiescence, she rebuts the government’s case even before her on-screen prosecutors present it. But perhaps more important, the lengthily elaborated interrogations enable her to bring off a quiet coup at the end of Part 1: the scene where the accused boys are at last put together in a glaringly lit holding cell—for some, it’s the first time they meet—and apologize for having implicated one another.

Even more affecting are the fluid, time-collapsing transitions in Part 3, in which she pans across scenes in prison and transforms the youths, one by one, into bulked-up men. The device in itself is not novel. But the way it makes the pit of your stomach drop away is expertly judged, with DuVernay allowing enough of a pause after each shock so you can almost recover before she hits you with the next. Here she has no message to deliver, no argument to advance. Her main purpose is emotional: to make incalculable sorrow real, again and again.

With two of her characters, though—Raymond Santana Jr. and Korey Wise—DuVernay expands time for yet another purpose: narrative complication. Wise was the only one who had reached the age of 16 at the time of the rape and so was tried as an adult and sentenced to the full hell of a penitentiary. Santana was the only one who broke the law after his release on probation—broke it for real this time—and was thrown back into prison. These distinctions give DuVernay good reason to focus on Wise and Santana and an opportunity to make the grand structure she’s designing a little more eclectic and asymmetrical through the addition of two stylistically distinct spaces.

In the narrative room reserved for Santana (played as an adult by the long-faced, tensely coiled Freddy Miyares), DuVernay tells a tale about the victory of frustration over prudence. Taken in upon parole by his endlessly loving, hopelessly ineffectual father (a touching John Leguizamo), Santana has to endure the insults of a furious stepmother, the indignities of quarters suitable only for a child, and the almost laughable system of barriers erected between felons and the jobs they need. When Santana eventually chooses to push back, he does so in a high-risk form of resistance that DuVernay presents as less than admirable and almost heroic.

Santana gets extra attention, but DuVernay nevertheless intercuts his extended story with those of three of the other judicial victims. But for the fifth, Wise, she holds back, teasing the viewer for a long time with his absence and then devoting the majority of Part 4 to a sustained narrative of his suffering. I might summarize this tale as the temptation of a saint in the wilderness. Of the five, Wise was the least prepared mentally and emotionally to endure even a juvenile prison, let alone Riker’s Island and Attica. DuVernay makes his experiences into a story of bafflement, fear, deliberate self-isolation (Wise prefers solitary confinement to the dangers of the general population), and retreat into fantasy. It’s also a story of grace, as manifested through the unexpected kindness of a white guard, and of the persistence of a heartbreakingly fragile hope.

Narratives about holy fools are notoriously difficult to pull off. I attribute the profound success of this one to DuVernay’s faith in a remarkable actor, Jharrel Jerome. (You might remember him as the teenage best friend in Moonlight.) He is the only member of the cast who plays his character as both a child and a man. If that sounds difficult, imagine doing it without betraying for even a moment that you’re giving a performance.

To return to my original question: What you get from DuVernay’s film is an almost physical sense of presence from Jerome. Beyond that, you get sharp, indelible characterizations across the board (especially Niecy Nash as Wise’s mother, Delores; Aunjanue Ellis as Yusef Salaam’s mother, Sharon; and Michael Kenneth Williams as Antron McCray’s tortured father, Bobby). You get an account of the Central Park Five case told as if from within the families—which means told not just with unshakable knowledge that this miscarriage is no aberration but also with a crushing grief among the adults and a sense of guilt about their inability to shield their children. When They See Us delivers all this with a new level of directorial expressiveness from DuVernay, enriched by the moodily nuanced cinematography of Bradford Young.

And then, of course, there’s the tendentiousness. DuVernay’s screenplay (assisted by Robin Swicord and Attica Locke) does not entirely resist the impulse to score points. Many of them are scored against Fairstein, played by Felicity Huffman in a late-’80s version of western villain wardrobe (her raincoat might as well be a gunslinger’s duster) and a scowl that could raise bloody welts. In case you don’t understand why five dark-skinned kids are about to be immolated on a prosecutorial altar, the dialogue written for Fairstein will tell you. The word “animals” comes up. The remark “We are not in control” leaves the definition of “we” unspecified and screamingly obvious.

I don’t want to make excuses for Fairstein. I just want to point out that a filmmaker more certain of her audience and her own powers might have modulated the late scene in which a new prosecutor, charged with re-examining the case, sits down with Fairstein just long enough to excoriate her, speaking ostensibly for herself but really on behalf of the filmmakers, the audience, and all right-thinking people. And it’s not enough for the character to mouth accusations of malicious, deliberate incompetence. DuVernay makes her open a bag and pull out some of the best-selling thrillers that Fairstein wrote in a second career.

It’s too much. Whatever wrongs Fairstein committed, she had a right to try her luck at being an author. And you can say this much for her novels, as distinct from her case against the Central Park Five: They were labeled as fiction.

At once artfully coy and unabashedly confessional, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is a memory film about all-consuming, disastrous first love, set in the England of the early 1980s. It’s exceptionally fine and as paradoxical as any movie I’ve seen in a while—wholly submerged in the skin of its young protagonist, an apprentice filmmaker named Julie (Honor Swinton Rose), and yet as coolly distanced as the Hitchcock movies Julie hears about when she shows up for film school. The clash of perspectives would be enough to make you cross-eyed if Hogg didn’t resolve them so exquisitely in a strange and strangely calming view of a landscape that repeats throughout the film—hardly even a landscape, you might say, but a picture of the sky with a few treetops poking up at the bottom of the frame. I should point out that this view, too, is designed as something of a puzzle, but I’ll get to that later.

For the moment, let’s consider a different kind of clash. The Souvenir begins with a succession of black-and-white still photographs of the decayed shipbuilding town of Sunderland, overlaid with the sounds of a radio interview with a young woman—Hogg back in the day?—describing a film she’d like to make there. She has in mind the story of a poor young boy and his obsessive, fearful love for his mother, who he knows must die someday. As The Souvenir jumps into its narrative, you quickly learn that this is Julie’s film-school project and that nobody believes she can make it work. Julie is a daughter of the landed gentry (Byrne looks like a rose fresh from her parents’ estate) who knows as much about the working-class north as she does about life on Mars.

But something in her does seem to know about loving death, or wanting the vertigo of loving in death’s shadow. Enter Anthony (Tom Burke), a slightly older, brutishly handsome denizen of art galleries, opera houses, and the sort of London restaurant that might be emptied later in the evening to accommodate a duchess’s grand ball. He has a languid, disdainfully playful Oxbridge manner, a chalk-stripe suit, and a purported job in the Foreign Office. As Julie will eventually learn, he also has a recurring need for infusions of her cash, no doubt explained by the heroin habit she is too unworldly to detect. But that part is almost secondary. What matters is that he assures her at the outset that she’s fragile and lost and always will be lost. Sold.

Hitchcock, the film professor says, used to suggest as much as tell, elide as much as show. (Not once in the Psycho shower scene do you see the knife penetrate flesh.) While Julie contemplates this artistic method, Hogg practices it and then some, narrating The Souvenir in fragments and ellipses, confounding the chronology, implying as much as she says about how and why Julie is sucked into an infinitely hurtful love, and then, just for a moment, giving you a flash of the knife’s tip drawing blood. If The Souvenir were not so cerebral, I suppose its pain would be too much to bear. As it is, you assemble the pieces mentally as you’re watching and then grieve over them later, in your memory.

And that odd, repeated landscape shot? Hogg waits until the very end to reveal its place in the puzzle. It has to do with Julie’s education in filmmaking. It has nothing to do with filmmaking and everything to do with her loss. Like The Souvenir, it turns out to be a thing of beauty and a sadness forever.