My partner and I watched the entirety of the Netflix Original hit show When They See Us over the space of a single evening. As the storyline progressed, I found myself alternating between sobbing, childlike, anxiously swigging from my glass of wine, and pacing the living room in a rage. When They See Us had a profound and long-lasting impact on me. I see the programme as incredible proof of the power the entertainment industry has to alter the dialogue, to provoke thought and discussion, and to create instrumental change in society.
The miniseries follows the case of the Central Park Five, a group of African American and Latino boys wrongly accused of the rape of a woman in Central Park in the 1980s. At the time of their arrest, the boys were teenagers, one merely thirteen years old. They left prison as adults, having spent the most formative years of their lives behind bars.
The series, created by American filmmaker Ava DuVernay, was the most watched show on Netflix for almost two weeks after its release this May. On Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now, a special interview with the cast and the real Central Park Five aired on Netflix following the miniseries’ release, DuVernay described the thrill of watching the show trending across the world.
She also discussed her motivations for creating the show: ‘In Hollywood, there is one dominant voice. It is a white, straight, male gaze. When I talk about positive portrayals of black people and women, I’m saying complexity ... The positive view of me is to see me as I am: the “good,” the “bad”, the “grey”. That is a positive portrayal.’
The show has been widely praised for shedding light on institutional failures and racial prejudice in America, in the face of, and perhaps in reaction to, Trump’s conservatism. It has sparked strong reactions from many viewers, and their outrage is prompting real world change; Manhattan district attorney turned crime writer Linda Fairstein, who was crucial in prosecuting the Central Park Five, was recently dropped by her publishers due to rising public pressure on social media. Yet When They See Us is by no means the first of its kind in America's entertainment industry. Recent films such as BlacKkKlansman and The Hate U Give have also been actively political on the subject of race, not too subtly signalling how far America has to go in the fight for equality and justice.
However, there is no doubt that Netflix has been instrumental in allowing programmes like When They See Us to reach the light of day. Shows that may be too risky for mainstream networks − controversial content that is believed unlikely to find commercial success − are increasingly being given a platform on Netflix. And, clearly, it is paying off. Profit motives aside, When They See Us is part of a stream of Netflix Original content that has pushed the boundaries and raised minority voices. Just think of Dear White People, Atypical, Roma, Russian Doll – shows that are taking risks and casting bold, multifaceted, often marginal characters in their starring roles.
In this environment, I cannot help but think of our own country, and how under-represented Australian content is on Netflix. While the European Union recently passed laws demanding a 30 per cent minimum quota of local content on the platform, Australia has no such quota in place. I cannot help but wonder why, when Netflix originally reached Australian shores in 2015, such discussions were not had.
It is not as if Australia does not have its own stories to tell; we have plenty of our own institutional failures, both past and present. Just a few weeks ago another Indigenous Australian died in custody as a result of suicide. The Guardian reported, after his death, that his mother had urged the prison that he was suicidal, to no avail.
Though America and Australia are different nations with unique politics and people, Indigenous Australians remain vastly over-represented in our prisons, as are African Americans in the States. The national inquiry into treatment of Indigenous Australians in Queensland suggests that these stories are out there, waiting to be told. Just as When They See Us brought these institutional failures to the surface, I want to hear our own stories from this perspective.
Online streaming has transformed the way people access entertainment. Netflix is already being utilised as a platform to tell more local and more marginal stories. But, to achieve this in Australia, policy-makers have got to start pushing for greater expenditure in the entertainment sector and creating new laws, so our content creators’ voices can be heard.
What if a filmmaker like Richard Frankland, known for his powerful documentary Who Killed Malcolm Smith?, was given a platform on Netflix to broadcast a new film? Or if Indigenous actors and writers Nakkiah Lui and Miranda Tapsell had the chance to write their own miniseries? We need a platform other than the ABC and the SBS that is willing to take political risks and broadcast new voices, to tell the real Australian story.
Caitlin Cassidy is a Masters student in Global Media and a freelance writer. She works at Readings.