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Surya Bonaly
Netflix

Television

Short of gold

Netflix series Losers examines how eight athletes responded to defeat

French figure skater Surya Bonaly placed fourth at the 1994 Winter Olympics, two places behind American sweetheart Nancy Kerrigan. Afterward, Bonaly walked into an empty dressing room and cried, frustrated that she hadn’t medaled. Still, she pressed on to compete in the 1994 World Figure Skating Championships, landing difficult jumps and combinations. There, she faced disappointment again, earning silver instead of the gold she believed she deserved.

What happens to athletes who fail? Do they become bitter? Rise above despair? That’s the focus of Netflix’s new documentary series Losers.

The eight episodes, directed by Mickey Duzyj, each tell the story of a promising competitor who experiences defeat. Like golfer Jean van de Velde, poised to be the first Frenchman in 92 years to win the 1999 British Open. He bungled it—big time. Or ultramarathoner Mauro Prosperi, who wanted to place in the Marathon Des Sables, an endurance race in the Sahara Desert. He found himself dead last—and nearly dead.

Although secular in perspective, the series is infused with humor and hope and easily lends itself to faith-based discussions. The athletes learn lessons compatible with Biblical truths. Many end up using their skills in a manner more in line with how God created them, such as basketball talent Jack “Jack Black” Ryan, who blew an opportunity to play for the NBA but found meaningful work making kids laugh as a trick performer for the Harlem Wizards. 

No need to watch the episodes in order: Simply pick the sporting events that appeal most. Only the first is riddled with the F-word (others have scattered swearing), as former boxer Michael Bentt speaks about the emotional effects of an abusive father and a humiliating knockout. Skip it if you must, although you’ll miss this line by writer-director Ron Shelton: “People who are considered winners are, in my mind, some of the great losers of all time, and people who are called losers are, to me, some of the great winners of all time.”

Losers shows why that’s often true.

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Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Kevin Richardson, Ethan Herisse, and Marquis Rodriguez
Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Television

Looking for justice

When They See Us is an embroidered dramatization of a rape case that roiled a nation

Courts can get it wrong. We sometimes sentence innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit. The four-part Netflix drama When They See Us revisits the real-life case of the “Central Park Five” but oversimplifies the story as a tale of racism and bad police work.

Netflix has rated the series MA (for “mature audiences”): Viewers should be aware of coarse language throughout and some blasphemy, along with scenes of violence and an unnecessary sex scene.

In late 1980s New York City, the public is outraged when a jogger is found raped, beaten, and left for dead in Central Park. The night of the attack, dozens of young black and Hispanic men had roamed the park in a spree of violence, harassing citizens and causing mayhem and injury. Eager for a conviction, the police arrest and charge five young men for the rape.

Those five may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or may have been involved in some of the other crimes of that night. In director Ava DuVernay’s version of events, the Central Park Five are on the periphery of the violence in the park and are innocent of the rape charges. Her portrayal of the police and prosecutors is unsympathetic: One of the boys is brutally beaten with an officer’s helmet, and the prosecutors use the injury on his face as evidence that he was one of the rapists. DuVernay suggests officers coerced confessions from the boys with the promise they would be allowed to go home if they simply told the cops what they wanted to hear.

Real-life law enforcement personnel who were present at the arrests and interrogations vehemently dispute the show’s version of events. Retired NYPD Officer Eric Reynolds, in an interview with the U.K.’s Daily Mail, called the show “total nonsense.” Reynolds—who is black—arrested several of the youths, and pictures from the time show no obvious injuries to the suspect who supposedly had been beaten so badly. Reynolds’ recollections of the crimes and subsequent investigation directly contradict important plot points in the miniseries: The boys offered confessions of their roles in crimes at the park voluntarily or implicated one another, he said. Reynolds also scoffs at the drama’s opening scenes in Central Park, which downplay the violence of some of the attacks: “It was like watching a musical. I was flabbergasted. That absolutely was not what occurred.”

A prosecutor in the case, Linda Fairstein, has also objected to the show, which portrays her as a vicious racist uninterested in justice. In an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, Fairstein, now a successful author of crime fiction, called the series “an outright fabrication” and noted there was other evidence implicating the Central Park Five besides their confessions. Despite her defense, Fairstein’s publisher and various boards have dropped her.

When They See Us goes on to show the terrible consequences to the accused and their families. The boys are from broken or fragile homes, and the pressures and publicity of the trial and sentences are hard for them and their loved ones to bear. The oldest of the boys (at 16) is sentenced as an adult and purportedly suffers beatings and mistreatment during his 13 years in prison. Once the four underage boys have served their sentences, they suffer the consequences of being ex-convicts. It’s hard to get a job or reenter society when your crimes are so well known.

Some time later, a serial rapist already in prison claims that he alone was responsible for the sexual assault in Central Park. Investigators find that his DNA matches samples collected from the victim’s clothing. As a result, the five men are exonerated, and New York City settles with them for $41 million in damages.

Millions have already watched this Netflix series, and many will use this embroidered version of the story as evidence of racism and injustice being the norm in law enforcement. The real facts of the case are more complicated, and deserve a thorough, fact-based retelling.

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CNN

Van Jones, right
CNN

Television

Offenders and victims

A project for moving in the direction of healing

A new Sunday night docuseries on CNN provides a look at something rarely seen in the justice system: moderated dialogues between victims and offenders through a system often known as restorative justice.

The Redemption Project includes a lot of neighborhood driving footage, historical photographs, and families describing the moment they learned of a crime that would wreck life as they knew it. But unlike many true-crime shows, this one shows no lawyers strategizing about how to spin a story for a jury. It also doesn’t dwell on the macabre details of each violent crime (mainly shootings and DUI incidents). Instead, Redemption Project offers long-term perspective on tragedy and healing. 

One question hangs over each episode: Will the victim (or victim’s family) forgive the offender? They certainly don’t have to. The “punitive” justice system has already worked its will. In these cases, the participating offenders will continue to serve their jail time or live their lives regardless of how the dialogues go, so they don’t have to participate either. Each dialogue is entirely voluntary.

But as one participant says, “It’s hard work. It’s people telling truth about the hardest day of their lives.”

The show humanizes each party in a way that the American justice system often does not. Throughout the series, the victims star. But humanizing means telling the full story—including showing how victims, too, are flawed. In one episode, a bereaved mother admits to introducing her son to the drug life that eventually got him killed. In another, host Van Jones asks a white policeman about unconscious bias. The officer, who survived a gunshot to the throat by a black man, admits he’s ashamed of the “racial overtones” in his own perception.

One expert told WORLD in 2015 that, in some situations, ongoing relationships between victims and offenders can have a deterrent effect on future crime. Studies indicate that restorative justice programs curb recidivism rates. In that case, let’s hope Redemption Project sparks many more real-life conversations.

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