In recent history, United States has formed distressed communities which can be traced back to the beginning of the civil rights movement. African American are usually excluded from economic progress and are given less opportunities due to “pervasive segregation, discrimination and the resulting problem of perception” (Ajilore, 2019). In larger measure, any response to a situation or event where a ‘Black’ American is involved, results are determined without justice or evidence. It is the perception that determines the verdict. Netflix series, ‘When They See Us’, directed by Ava Duvernay and Maya Angelou’s poem, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ also known as ‘Caged Bird’, interrelate to reveal the racial discrimination of the Americans towards Black races. The authors utilise a variety of techniques to position audience to recognise the dominance of the Whites over the oppressed Blacks, de-humanising and discriminating because of their colour. The prevailing issue of White supremacy is explicitly shown in When They See Us, which is evident through the use of camera angles, soundtrack and dialogue. Further, Angelou’s heart-wrenching poem, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings utilises the poetic devices of imagery and metaphor to emphasise racial discrimination in American society against the ‘Blacks’.
Published in 1983, Angelou’s poem Caged Bird, uses several poetic devices to reinforce the biased nature of the Americans. This classic poem reflects on the mindless oppression that the African Americans were subjected in prevalence to the olden days but also in modern times. Throughout Angelou’s work, imagery is used in the lines, “the caged bird sings with a fearful trill” (….) with his “wings clipped and his feet are tied” (….), position readers to envision the bird’s captivity and the unpleasant sound of its cry for “things unknown but longed for still” (….). In contrast, the “free bird” experiences “trade winds soft through the sighing trees” (….), a more pleasant auditory experience and fetches not just any worms but “fat” worms while “he names the sky his own” – the life of the privileged is further facilitated. Stripped of their fundamental rights to act their will or the freedom to go places, the previous lines simply alludes to the injustice system of the Blacks treatment in comparison to the Whites, who seem to have everything in the palm of their hand. Furthermore, Angelou’s contrast of the “free bird” and the “caged bird” are metaphors as they represent the white Americans who are “free” as opposed to the “caged” African Americans and their captivity in social norms. In Caged Bird, Angelou’s portrayal of injustice using “free bird” and a “caged bird” is not only a reminder of the long-abolished discrimination the Blacks endured from 1928 to 1983 but also position the audience to recognise the underlying presence of societal oppression as a result of perception – who you appear to be – being the first instinct.
The prevailing ideology of perception and discrimination against African Americans is further established in When They See Us four-part series. Inspired by a real-life event known as “The Central Park Jogger case”, Ava DuVernay directs the story of the five boys’ wrongful incarcerations from their perspectives – that were so rarely seen in this deep biased assumption of criminality that is forced upon black men or boys when they walk down the street. In When They See Us, five teenage boys of colour (four black, one Latino) were wrongfully accused and ultimately convicted of a crime they did not commit. After Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white woman was assaulted and raped in New York City’s Central Park in 1989, these boys who were only between the ages of 14 and 16, now men – Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise – were arrested and convicted, despite a lack of physical evidence.
In Part One, low and high camera shots of the boys in separate interrogation rooms with at least two or three detectives present creates the impression of domination. After a prolonged interrogation for seven hours or more of police aggression and coerced confessions – without relief, food or water – McCray’s father who’s intention was to go ‘home’ told Antron to admit to the crime and when he disagreed, he aggressively stated “When the police want what they want, they will do anything/ They will lie on us, they will lock us up, they will kill us” – (Bobby McCray, Part One). Moreover, the dysfunctional justice system of the white culture is identified when Salaam’s mother realised the state of captivity her son was in, “You left a child unaccompanied by a guardian or a lawyer with these men in this room, for hours! Shame on you!” – (Sharonne Salaam, Part One). The non-digenic “Falling Leaves” background song further reiterates how these boys were failed by America’s legal system, an institution that is supposed to ensure justice. Additionally, the short dialogue between Richardson, “Why are they doing us like this?” and Santana, “What other way they ever do us?” portrays the plain consistent racial discrimination of black Americans.
‘We’re 14, 15 and 16-year-old kids,’ said Santana. ‘Never been in trouble with the law. Never had no police contact. These are seasoned detectives. This fight was fixed.’ (CBS news, 2019). Part Two covers the trial where all five boys were placed on a pedestal of the crime they did not commit. This particular scene clearly displays the immediate reaction of public opinion and the justice system who has turned against, judged and robbed these kids of their rights. “The police decided to solve this case no matter what it meant to the rights of a scared 14-year-old child”, (Mickey Joseph – Antron’s lawyer, Part Two) were the words spoken by Richardson’s lawyer to the juries of the obvious unjust law. Evidently, the timeline for the assault did not match the timeline of the boys’ movements, the boys’ coerced statements bore no resemblance of the crime scene, even the DNA evidence is lacking. No matter: A white woman had been brutalised, and America demanded someone to punish. What perfect suspects would these kids make? In result of the racial perception of White supremacy, they were found guilty, and each spent between six and fourteen years in prison. “Love & Hate” soundtrack by Michael Kiwanuka connect the boys experience, particularly in the lyrics “How much more are we supposed to tolerate/ Can’t you see there’s more to me than my mistakes.” In When They See Us, the jury, the media, and White society refused to believe that the biggest mistake the boys and their families made was agreeing to sign a false statement linking them to the crime. Between the on-going trials, then-real estate developer Trump spent about $85,000 of a full-page ad calling for the boys’ execution. “BRINK BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” the ad proclaimed in bold capital letters. In result to this, a close-up angle of Salaam’s mother hysterically screaming, ““That devil wants to kill my son! You going to take an ad out about killing my son!”, exposes the moral depravity of White justice. After a convicted rapist, Matias Reyes confessed to the crime, the Central Park Five were finally exonerated in 2002 and sued New York city for racial discrimination and malicious prosecution, settling for $41 million in 2014 as free men today (Dibdin, 2019). When They See Us richly position viewers that in America – a country who believes and judges through images on screens – who you appear to be matters far more than who you actually are (Wilkinson, 2019).
Although United States progression into a multicultural country has taken steps towards granting equal rights on the basis of race in the 1960s, racial discrimination is still a perpetual issue in America today. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and When They See Us clearly depicts the discriminatory policies of White American Law.