You’d think that in the wake of the Dominion lawsuit, which cost Fox News $787 million, Hollywood would be more sensitive to high-stakes libel showdowns. And yet, this past week, hardly anyone seemed bothered by a federal judge ordering Netflix to trial over Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, a 2019 docudrama about the notorious Central Park jogger case. Astonishingly, the defamation case barely made a blip on the radar, perhaps as B-matter amid the concluding labor unrest, and the few news outlets that did report on it treated it as nothing out of the ordinary.
But this is a huge deal for Netflix, for overall deals, and for DuVernay, a luminary in the entertainment industry whose previous work includes the civil rights biopic Selma and mass incarceration documentary 13th, both nominated for Academy Awards. After directing A Wrinkle in Time for Disney, DuVernay returned to those themes with When They See Us, portraying the harrowing ordeal of the five New York teenagers who were coerced into confessing to assault and rape in 1989, only to be exonerated over a decade later when someone else admitted to the crime. The four-part dramatic series was nominated for more than a dozen Emmys.
But the series is also a showcase in unsubtle filmmaking, particularly in its portrayal of the antagonists, specifically Linda Fairstein, who once enjoyed a distinguished career as a prosecutor before becoming a mystery novelist and cable news legal commentator. In the series, Fairstein is played by Felicity Huffman, and is portrayed as being obsessively biased against the Black and Latino teens, calling them “animals” and overlooking inconsistencies in their confessions.