Last week marked the release of Ava DuVernay’s miniseries about the Central Park Five, When They See Us. The show has garnered acclaim for critics, and it’s made for a lot of retrospectives on the real-life event’s major actors. Linda Fairstein, leader of the Manhattan sex crimes division at the time of the case in 1989, is under particular fire for what many see as her presence as a driving force behind the wrongful convictions of the Central Park Five.
At the time of the case, Fairstein was one of the most celebrated law enforcement officials in the state of New York. In fact, her work in the sex crimes division was a huge part of its rise to prominence, so much that it became the basis of a little show called Law and Order: SVU. Her later career has involved serving on several boards advocating for justice efforts in areas of sexual abuse and violence, and she’s written several successful novels to boot.
However, in When They See Us, Fairstein doesn’t come off well. Portrayed by now-disgraced actor Felicity Huffman, Fairstein is presented as one of the primary opponents of the five black and Latino teenagers who were wrongfully sent to prison for the assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park. Throughout the series, Fairstein demonizes the men as “monsters” and “animals,” underscoring the show’s main theme of how public (racist) perception of people of color leads to systemic injustice.
Now, the real-life Fairstein is facing intense blowback for her character on the show. Criticism online has been so intense that she’s left social media, and numerous calls to action have lead her to step down from multiple boards she serves on, including Vassar College, her alma mater, and Safe Horizon and the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization aiding victims of sexual violence.
Fairstein has criticized When They See Us for how it portrays her, going so far as to call DuVernay an “irresponsible filmmaker.” Some witnesses to the real-life events of the Central Park Five, including the lawyer for four of the five men prosecuted, said the show captures the “essence of who she was.” Fairstein has called it “grossly and maliciously inaccurate.” It’s worth pointing out the show did take some artistic liberties, like all historical dramas. (h/t New York Times)
As the hashtag #CancelFairstein trends on Twitter and a boycott of her books rages, the recurrent questions concerning cultural grace rise again.
It seems DuVernay made efforts to consider Fairstein’s perspective when writing the series. The Daily Beast reports DuVernay asked Fairstein if they could discuss the case before she wrote the script, but Fairstein countered saying she’d only meet if she could have final approval over the teleplay. DuVernay declined this request in line with common practice for writers, and the conversation fell through.