The Blog

Inequality is stored in the body cells

By Stella Saliari 

When they see us is a four-part series on Netflix directed by Ava DuVernay, which is based on the lives of Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam who were wrongfully convicted and sent to prison as teenagers for gang-raping and nearly killing Trisha Meili, a woman who was jogging in Central Park in 1989. They served years in prison for a crime they did not commit until the real rapist confessed the crime and the men became known as the exonerated five.

If you have not watched it yet then do so and if you have then re-watch minutes 20:00 to 41:10 which show how the boys are held by the police in separate rooms, where the detectives manipulate, harass and abuse them leading to forced confessions despite the boys’ innocence. If you observe the facial expressions of the boys which complement the verbal communication during the entire interrogation you will see that when they are telling the truth they look confident, upset and look the detectives straight in the eye. However, when they are confronted with and accused of the rape they look down, confused, crying. They look broken by the tactics applied by the police and when forced to ‘’confess the truth’’, they drop their gaze, are lost, look humiliated and their eyes are asking the officers to ‘’help’’ them construct the false story. This goes hand in hand with them not being able to utter proper sentences but only chunks of words, fragmented utterances. Their facial expressions are crucial in those scenes, they reflect the struggle they are facing with the police and themselves. They contradict their words and are telling us the truth: we are INNOCENT. But no one cares.

The boys, African-American and Hispanic teenagers between 14-16, are being intimidated and abused by racist police personnel that manipulate them and their families because of their age, class, gender and race. Ava DuVernay, the director of the series, created a masterpiece portraying the true story of Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam. The series and this scene in particular cause rage to the viewer and pay witness to the existence of systemic racism in our society. It makes you angry, uncomfortable, you might even want to turn off the TV at times: DON’T!

Through her use of non-verbal behaviour and facial expressions specifically DuVernay shows how ‘’all knowledge is embodied, and that it is unacceptable to ascribe to experience a status inferior to that of theory.’’[1]  Personal stories matter. DuVernay shows in that section of the series that ‘’inequality is stored in the body cells, in the memory of these cells – it is embodied. This is what we are calling embodied cognition, which we derive from the body being a repository, a site of and encrypted with disciplines and unmentionable pain and trauma.”[2] This is epitomized by the moment when Antron McCray’s father steps out of the interrogation room to look for another police officer to help him against the detectives who are accusing his son of rape, but instead of receiving help he is being reminded by the white detective of his criminal past. As an effect, the father’s facial expression changes abruptly, his body breaks, he looks down, scared. His body remembers the trauma. There are no witnesses, it is the moment that will destroy his family forever. So he walks back into the room, and forces his son to confess because the knowledge he had embodied reminded him that ‘’when the police want what they want, they will do anything. […]. They will kill us.’’

[1] De Sousa Santos, Boaventura. 2018. “What Is Struggle? What is Experience?” In Boaventura De Sousa Santos (ed.), The End of Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South, pp. 63-86. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[2] Mbasalaki P. K. & Matchett S. (2020) “Butoh gives the feeling back to the people”. Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity, pp. 1-13.