I was one of the 23 million people who watched Ava Duvernay’s ‘When they see us on Netflix. The four-part series is a masterclass of storytelling that takes us through the humanization of young black and brown boys often viewed as criminals or referred to as a ‘pack’ to their redemption. I was very familiar with the case, so ahead of watching the series, I knew it would be emotional. I anticipated anger and frustration mostly geared towards the criminal justice system in the United States but correctly pointed to Linda Fairstein and the NYPD. I knew I would have empathy for the families who also were tried along with the Exonerated 5. I looked forward to learning more about Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santanna, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise. I knew because ‘When they see us’ is an Ava Duvernay piece, executive produced and co-written, I would expect nothing less than excellence. So I watched. I watched in anger, frustration, and empathy for the boys, their families and for dreams deferred. I watched. But then I got to Episode Four.
In the build-up to Episode Four and through the arc of the characters, I had lingering questions. What is innately in black and brown people that enable us to survive the worst of the worst? How could these boys so young face such vitriol, and violence, yet survive? Episode Four amplified my thoughts when Jharrel Jerome complexly portrays 16 yrs. old Korey Wise's story. By the end of the episode and reflection of the series, I arrive at my premise; Korey Wise is a modern-day type and shadow of Christ.
It is essential to set the contextual reference of type and shadow of Christ. In the Old Testament, Jesus Christ is revealed in types and shadows. Meaning because he has not taken on physical form, his spirit, behaviours and ways of being are made manifest through individuals throughout the Old Testament. Hebrew 10:1 explains “For the Law, being only a reflectionof the blessings to come and not their substance, can never make perfect those who come near by the same sacrifices repeatedly offered year after year” ISV. The significance of the scripture concerning shadows of Christ is threefold. Shadows are still a form of law, they can be a blessing, but this blessing is not perfection, and their sacrifice is continual. We see examples of type and shadows of Christ throughout the Old Testament; for example, Joseph is a type and shadow of Christ. Like Christ, Joseph is separated from his family; wrongfully accused of a crime (rape), imprisoned, and eventually becomes a saviour of a nation and his family. In Joseph’s story, he experiences, slavery, famine, betrayal but maintains a spirit of forgiveness.
Another example is Job, an innocent man who suffered tremendously. Job, described as ‘blameless and upright’ experiences great hardship. Job’s animals, family and servants are destroyed. His friends, who also wronged God, reject him. However, Job maintains his integrity, he is ultimately redeemed and intercedes on behalf of his friends, saving them from wrath. So what does all of this have to do with Korey Wise?
Wise refers to the exonerated 5 as 4+1. This description is apt because Korey Wise was not a suspect. Wise finds himself at the police station because he wants to support his friend Yusef Salim. Proverbs 18:24 a foreshadowing of Christ, states” One who has unreliable friends comes to ruin, but there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother", NIV. A 16-year-old boy goes to the police station without regard for his wellbeing because his ultimate concern at that point is ensuring his friend is not alone. What follows, as we now know, is 14 years of the unimaginable for Wise. Given all of the parallels of Wise’s experience, there are specific focal points to explore.
Let’s start with the context of where and when. Wise is 16 yrs. old, in New York City in the 1980s. As a result, he is tried as an adult and sent to Rikers Island. At that moment, he is separated from Raymond, Yusef, Antron and Richard because he is not a minor. Wise enters arguably one of the worst prisons in United States history. Kool G Rap, in the 1987 song “Riker’s Island” describes the prison as “a jungle where murderers mingle”. Rap goes on to state " they have a nice welcome for new inmates, razors, shanks and sharp edge plates”, imagine what Wise's hospitality would have been, now infamously famous for “raping” a white woman. Rape a crime in the U.S. prison hierarchy after paedophilia is the lowest of the low. Wise is branded a rapist; he is considered base, his offence is friendship. The decision to follow Yusef Salaam transforms Wise from friend to type and shadow of Christ.
Another essential detail is Wise is sent to prison in place of the murderer and actual rapist Matias Reyes. During Christ’s trial, Pontius Pilate gives the Jewish people a choice, between two men and the option to commute their sentencing. They can choose to commute Jesus Christ or Barabbas, a murderer described as “a notorious prisoner”. They choose Barabbas who is freed, and Christ is crucified. Similarly, the NYPD, Linda Fairstein, the Media and the District Attorney’s Office had a choice. They could have looked at the evidence and actually pursued the real rapist, or they could crucify young black and brown boys. They chose crucifixion. Wise was crucified in the court of public opinion when he was tried as an adult when his innocence was lost and time is taken from him.
We see time taken from Joseph and Job in the bible, and from Korey. 14 years is taken from Wise’s life. During that period he fought for his life, his dignity and his innocence. He also spent a significant amount of time in solitary confinement. Christ, while on the cross even though flanked by two thieves, had his solitary time in darkness and silence when he cried out to God. Wise similarly was confined next to other prisoners, but he was alone. We see a fictional account of how Wise may have served his time in solitary confinement through Jharrel Jerome’s portrayal. However, only Wise and God know the reality of what he encountered and what was required for him to see the other side of his experience.
The other side of Wise’s experience is messianic and redemptive. Throughout his time in prison, Wise maintains his innocence and integrity. Matias Reyes, a convicted felon finds Christ, is in the same prison as Wise and confesses to the rape that Wise and the four are accused of. It is important to note when Reyes confesses, this is the second time he encounters Wise. The first time they meet, they get into a fight. Given the high profile nature of the case, Reyes knows that Wise is accused of the crime he committed. When Reyes confesses, and DNA fully exonerates Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santanna and Yusef Salaam, it is nothing short of a miracle. Wise states in a Breakfast Club interview that his mother said of Reyes, “this man loves you so much he cleared you”. Wise is redeemed and a saviour of the four other men. It was because Korey Wise loved his friend, supported him, was tried as an adult, endured and maintained his innocence that he walks free, and they all are exonerated, men.
Korey Wise’s experience starts and ends with love, drawing direct parallels to the lessons we learn from Jesus Christ’s life. Wise reminds us that even though we may be put through the most extreme situations, we can emerge with courage and forgiveness. We can in darkness be light and activate the God in us.
Disclaimer: Korey Wise is not a religious man. In a Power 105, Breakfast Club interview, he describes himself as “neutral”.