Since its Netflix premiere on May 31, Academy Award-nominated director Ava DuVernay’s true crime drama, ‘When They See Us’, left the whole world speechless.
The real life four part story of five teenagers — Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson — were all wrongly convicted of rape in the very high profile Central Park jogger case back in 1989. Named the “Central Park Five” during the trial and years to come, the five men were finally exonerated thanks to the confession of Matias Reyes and DNA evidence clearing them of all charges in 2002.
As part of Netflix’s For Your Consideration (FYSEE) campaign, Oprah Winfrey sat down for a two-part interview with Ava DuVernay, cast members, the series’ executive producers, and the real men behind the film.
DuVernay’s series gives viewers a striking and gut-wrenching insight of the indictment of the American criminal justice system and its ongoing mistreatment of boys and men of color. And although the 2012 documentary ‘The Central Park Five’ also examined the facts of the infamous case it didn’t tell the men’s story and how it changed their lives forever.
During the taped event, Winfrey encouraged audience members to spread the word that going forward Wise, Salaam, McCray, Santana, and Richardson should now be referred to as the “Exonerated Five,” and not the name that was given to them by the media years ago.
Here are the top five reasons to watch:
1. Ava DuVernay’s Deliberate Decision-Making For When They See Us:
DuVernay said the vison she wanted for the series is to have the ability to spark dialogue and move viewers to stand up and take action.
“The goal was to create something that stuck to your ribs and that wasn’t junk food. Was to create something that was going to be the catalyst for conversation. Entertainment serves all kinds of different purposes. I love horror, I love romance, I love action but to be able to create something with my collaborators that is actually gonna move people to action, move people to evaluate what they think and how they behave in the world was our goal.”
The series producers went back and forth on what it should be titled. During the shooting of the project it was called the Central Park Five, but DuVernay insisted for it be changed, expressing it felt like something “put upon” the men by the press, prosecutors and police.
“It took away their faces, it took away their families, it took away their pulses and their beating hearts. It dehumanized them. It became really important to think about that. At every level as a director, my job was to look at everything, and the title was a big part of it. The first time you meet the movie is when it walks up to you and says, ‘Hi, my name is,’ and so it really needed to be more than Central Park Five.”
2. Revelations On Linda Fairstein’s Role in the Case:
Prosecutor Linda Fairstein received some major backlash stemming from her role in the teens’ wrongful convictions. Following the series’ debut Fairstein has reportedly stepped down from several board positions and charities and dropped by her publisher.
“I think that it would be a tragedy if this story and the telling of it came down to one woman being punished for what she did, because it’s not about her, really not all about her. She is a part of a system that’s not broken; it was built to be this way… It was built to oppress; it was built to control. It was built to shape our culture in a specific way.”
“As a prosecutor, you know that moment that that DNA evidence comes back and it doesn’t match… at that moment, this was her chance for her to take a step back and say let me reevaluate, something’s wrong here, ‘cause it doesn’t match. Then, we find out later on during deposition that they tested over 40 kids and no DNA matched. And so it’s that pivotal moment that she had the power in her hand to really do the right thing and she fumbled it.”
3. The Cast’s Eye-Opening Moments:
Jharrel Jerome, who plays Wise in the series, said it took two months with the help of a vocal coach to get the Harlem accent down.
“Once I found the voice… it kind of just went down the body and into the legs, and it became… It was so weird. It was the first time I ever felt like I truly stepped out of my own body and stepped into somebody else’s.”
Justin Cunningham, who portrays Richardson, said working on the set made him aware of his own level of privilege:
“I sort of forget that my freedom can be taken away at any moment. And I move through life sort of forgetting about that and not realizing that, and in getting to meet Kevin I sort of understood about his sister and his family and how much they supported him and how much they fought for him.”
Michael K. Williams who played Bobby McCray, grew up in New York around the same time the case and says he remembers the fear and trauma of not wanting to be associated with the five teens:
“I didn’t remember that until I got on the set and I started to dig into the context of what they were going through when I remember what I was going through. I changed the way I dressed because I was afraid that they would think I was one of them.”
4. Korey Wise’s Story:
DuVernay talked about the first time she met Wise, and the importance of capturing his story:
“When I first sat with him, he said: ‘Ava, you can tell my story, but you need to know right now I feel that it’s four plus one, because at least they were together, and I was alone, and I had a different experience.’”
Wise, who at the time was 16 and the eldest of the group, served the longest prison sentence and was sent directly to an adult prison. The other four who began serving their sentences in juvenile facilities agreed that Wise’s story needed to be told differently.
Winfrey asked Wise on whether or not he regretted his decision to accompany his friend (Salaam) to the police station back in 1989. Wise responded, “I do. I do. I do. I don’t. I do. Mixed feelings.”
Salaam gives all credits to Wise with their exoneration because it was the fight he had with Reyes in prison that led up to the confession that later freed them.
“Here he wasn’t even a suspect and he goes down and he becomes the absolute thing that freed us. And I so appreciated that, because for me, that’s my guy right there. He had my back. He was my ace in a hole, and I will forever have his back.”
5. Antron McCray’s Admits To Being Broken:
McCray choked back tears as he recalled his experience at the police station and his broken relationship with his late father:
“I’m damaged. I need help. I know it, but I just try to keep myself busy. The system broke a lot of things in me that can’t be fixed.”
Although his wife has encouraged him to seek therapy, McCray says he refuses.
He also talked about losing his mother to cancer:
“She was the only one there for me at that time. My father left.”
The series also sheds light on the moment when McCray’s father Bobby, pressured him into admitting guilt during his interrogation. Even to this day McCray says he still hasn’t forgiven his father.
“He’s a coward. I have six kids, four boys, two girls. I couldn’t imagine doing that to my son.”