On the final night of the Netflix #FYSee Showcase, Oprah Winfrey sat down with director Ava DuVernay to discuss her limited series, “When They See Us.”
The four-part series is based on the case known as the Central Park Five. In 1989, five teenage boys were arrested for the brutal rape of a jogger in Central Park. They were all convicted despite a complete lack of physical and DNA evidence. Each of the boys spent years in prison, but were exonerated by a 2002 confession from the real perpetrator. In the years since, the Central Park Five: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise have quietly rebuilt their lives. But the scars remain.
Netflix began the event with a screening of the first episode. It shows the boys, ages 14-16, and how they were caught up in a system that was built to work against them. Following the screening, Oprah talked with DuVernay, as well as the cast and producers.
One of the first topics addressed was the title of the series. Originally produced under the working title, “The Central Park 5,” DuVernay explained that she was determined to change the name. She explained that their identities were erased by the moniker, and that the entire point of her project was to make the world see them not for what happened, but for who they are.
Each of the teen and adult actors who portray Antron, Kevin, Raymond, Yusef, and Korey in the series spoke about the work, and about the powerful experiences they had in getting to know these men. Chris Chalk, who plays the older Yusef, said, “Spending time with Dr. Salaam inspired me to do better. If he can do it, please, we all can do better.”
Producers established a hotline for any cast and crew who needed to talk with a grief counselor about their experiences. But for Jharrel Jerome, who plays Korey Wise from youth to adulthood, the actor spoke about the hope he drew from Wise. “I never needed the hotline because I had Korey.”
Following the panel with the cast, Oprah and Ava continued the conversation by sitting down with Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise. Oprah now calls them the “Exonerated Five,” wanting to establish that everything that happened to them was wrong and preventable.
During the 45-minute discussion, she asked if they blame Linda Fairstein, the lead prosecutor on the case. “Yeah,” said Salaam, without hesitation. Wise added, “She got caught up. She was just doing her job and it caught up to her.”
The conversation steered away from their actual experiences in prison, which are depicted throughout the series. Instead, they spoke about why DuVernay was the right person to tell their story. They also revealed that none of them knew what anyone else experienced until they saw it play out onscreen.
“One of the things that I told the gentlemen as we watched this,” Salaam began, “I said, wow. This was almost like a play of words on us as well. Because, not only will the world get an opportunity to see us for the first time, but we got an opportunity to see each other.”