Academy Award-nominated director Ava DuVernay’s true crime drama When They See Us has had an explosive impact on viewers since its premiere on May 31.
Over the course of four parts, it tells the real life story of five teenagers — Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson — who were wrongly convicted of rape in the notorious 1989 Central Park jogger case. During their trial and the years that followed, they were branded the “Central Park Five.” In 2002, the five men were exonerated after DNA evidence and a confession by a man named Matias Reyes cleared them of all charges.
On Sunday (June 9), as part of Netflix’s For Your Consideration (FYSEE) campaign, Oprah Winfrey sat down for a two-part interview with DuVernay, members of the cast, the series’ executive producers and the real men behind the story. Titled Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now, the discussion aired on OWN Wednesday night (June 12) and is available for streaming on Netflix.
DuVernay’s series serves as a clear indictment of the American criminal justice system for its historic mistreatment of boys and men of color. The 2012 documentary The Central Park Five also examined the facts of the case but didn’t tell the men’s story in such striking and gut-wrenching detail.
During the taped event, Winfrey encouraged audience members to spread the word that going forward Wise, Salaam, McCray, Santana, and Richardson should be referred to as the “Exonerated Five,” not the moniker that was given to them in the media all those years ago.
Here are five takeaways from the interview:
1. Ava DuVernay’s Deliberate Decision-Making For When They See Us:
While discussing her vision for the program, DuVernay said she wanted the series to spark dialogue and spur viewers to 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,” she said. “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.”
Winfrey revealed that early on there was some talk among the producers about what the name should be. Its working title was Central Park Five, but DuVernay, who insisted it be changed, said 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…” she said. “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:
Following the series’ debut, prosecutor Linda Fairstein received a wave of backlash for her role in the teens’ wrongful convictions. Fairstein has since stepped down from several board positions and charities and was reportedly 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,” DuVernay said. “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.”
Winfrey later asked the real men if they blamed Fairstein for their convictions. Santana who responded “yeah,” quickly nodded his head as members of the audience laughed.
“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.” Santana said. “Then, we find out later on during deposition that they tested over 40 kids and no DNA matched.”
He continued, “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:
Actor Jharrel Jerome, who plays Wise in the series, said it took two months of working with a vocal coach to nail the latter's Harlem accent. “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 plays Richardson, said working on the set opened his eyes to his own level of privilege. “I sort of forget that my freedom can be taken away at any moment,” Cunningham said. “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 (Bobby McCray) grew up in New York around the same time the case was unfolding. He said he remembers the fear and trauma of not wanting to be lumped in or generalized 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.”
Actress and comedian Niecy Nash departed from her usual acting lane with her role as Wise’s mother Delores. Nash said she always thought she’d take on more dramatic roles at the start of her career. “I thought I was going to do drama and that was what I thought the path was going to be...,” she said. “I waited a long time for people to understand that people who can make you laugh can also make you cry.”
4. Korey Wise’s Story Takes Center Stage:
DuVernay recalled her first time meeting with Wise, highlighting the importance of approaching his story with care.
“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,’” she said.
Wise, who at 16 was 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 then turned to Wise and asked him whether or not he regretted his decision to accompany his friend (Salaam) to the police station in 1989. Wise, who was the most reserved of the men throughout the interview responded, “I do. I do. I do. I don’t. I do. Mixed feelings.”
Salaam said he credits Wise with their exoneration because it was an altercation he had with Reyes in prison that led to the confession that subsequently freed them.
“Here he wasn’t even a suspect and he goes down and he becomes the absolute thing that freed us,” Salaam said. “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 Heartbreaking Admissions:
McCray was visibly emotional throughout much of the interview, choking back tears as he recalled his experience at the police station and his relationship with his late father. Several members of the cast cried as he told his story.
“I’m damaged. I need help. I know it, but I just try to keep myself busy,” McCray admitted during the interview. “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.
During a particularly touching part of the discussion, he talked about losing his mother to cancer. “She was the only one there for me at that time. My father left.” The series depicts the moment when McCray’s father Bobby, pressured him into admitting guilt during his interrogation. McCray says he still hasn’t forgiven his father. “He’s a coward,” he said. “I have six kids, four boys, two girls. I couldn’t imagine doing that to my son.”