In North Miami, New Netflix Series Hits Home And Sparks Conversations About Change

Jun 16, 2019

While barbers swept fallen hair from the floor of Fweago Cutz barber shop, guests and volunteers set up folding chairs and a projector.

After the lights were off and the crowd was seated, Jefferson Noel pressed play.

The community organizer rented out the barbershop to screen the new Netflix series, "When They See Us." More importantly, he set up a candid panel discussion with former public defendants and activists in the community to discuss the issues that come up in the story.

The show tells the true story of five black and latino teenagers in New York who in 1989 were wrongfully accused and convicted of beating and raping a white woman jogging in Central Park. The group were coerced into giving false confessions and spent years in the prison system before being exonerated in 2002.

“I’m not an emotional guy but I almost cried. Everyone knows Jefferson Noel does not cry, I do not. But I was in the bed watching the film and I saw myself,” Noel said.

After watching the movie, Noel invited Shirley Plantin to host a community discussion about the issues it raises.

Plantin is a program officer at the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board and chief executive consultant with U-Turn Youth Consulting.  She works with at risk youth and said the hardest part of watching the show in one sitting was thinking of how this could have happened to the boys she works with. Then she thought of her son.

“It became even more real for me because I have a six-year-old. So it’s like, 'how do I avoid my child ever being in this situation,'” she said.

She steered the discussion to educate participants about what they could do to make change. The crowd was tense after watching the first episode, which lasts an hour. Most said they felt hurt, some said they were angry, others curious about how something so heinous could happen to children.

Shirley Plantin talks to guests about the justice system during the event Saturday night in Miami Shores.
Credit Gerard Albert III / WLRN

“A lot of people still had some stirred up feelings, but I just wanted to make sure it was channeled. And make sure it didn’t stay as feelings. Like what can we actually do with those feelings?” Plantin said.

She was joined by former public defenders who gave context and insight into the complex legal systems.

Jahra McLawrence,  a private defense lawyer and former public defender, told the crowd that to see a change, they have to get more involved in their community.

Voting in local elections, he said, has more effects on day to day life for residents than the presidential elections.

“They can get more involved with the local races such as the prosecutors races and judicial races because they are the ones who are supposed to police the police,” he said.

Noel said he wants to host a “part two” and watch more of the series and possibly include law enforcement officers in the conversation. His organization, Barbershop Speaks, aims at bringing communities together for educating conversations and meets in barbershops and beauty salons around Miami-Dade.

“This event was beautiful,” he said afterwards. “After everyone watched the film you could see the emotions on people’s faces. But, as we got deeper in the discussion, people began to become comforted in the education.”

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly identified the name of the organization Barbershop Speaks. We regret the error.