“Dedicate a couple of hours to justice, to righteousness, to our community and to love,” Ava DuVernay told Variety about her powerful limited series “When They See Us,” which dramatizes the accusation, conviction and eventual exoneration of the Central Park Five.
The five men — Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana — all between 14 and 16 years old when they were wrongfully arrested for the brutal rape of a Central Park jogger in 1989, attended the premiere at the Apollo Theater in New York on Monday night. It was only fitting for them to walk the red carpet, given how closely they worked with the Academy Award nominee and director, and her cast and crew on the making of the show. The four-part series tells their story, spanning 25 years — beginning when the teenagers were first questioned in 1989, and continuing through their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement they reached with the city in 2014.
Having the men involved in the creative process “made it real for all of us, for all of our actors,” Jane Rosenthal, producer and CEO of Tribeca Enterprises, recalled. “It was so emotional to be sitting on the corner of Central Park and 110th Street, sitting in front of Schomburg Plaza, sitting with Kevin Richardson, watching as all the kids were running through the park and hearing him say, ‘All I did wrong that day was follow my friend.’”
“This is a night of celebration. This a celebration of them; it’s a celebration of their triumph and survival,” said Caleel Harris, who plays the young McCray in the series. Freddy Miyares, who plays Santana, added: “This should be a commemoration of their lives, and I think it’s amazing that they can get together and know that they’re here and being honored in this way.”
The cast reflected on the necessity of this series, celebrating the evening with a sense of urgency. “What is so important about this telling of the story is that Ava goes inside the houses. You see what all this does to mom and dad. You see what this does to brothers and sisters,” Joshua Jackson, who plays Antron McCray’s defense lawyer, told Variety. “The horror doesn’t end at incarceration. It doesn’t end when they get released. It is an unending stream of terror that the state visits upon these kids’ heads.”
“We shouldn’t have to tell this story, but we are,” Christopher Jackson told Variety. “And the only reason there’s a silver lining is because these extraordinary men didn’t just go to prison, but found a way to make their lives meaningful.” Niecy Nash, who plays Korey Wise’s mother, Delores, in the series, echoed the timeliness of the story, saying, “it could have happened yesterday.”
“It is happening. It continues to happen. Black and brown boys are demonized by the media and the public, and all of these young boys’ lives were turned upside down by a lie,” she continued. “They could be Trayvon Martin. They could Mike Brown. They could be any of the young men who’ve lost their lives because we saw them as something they were not.”
“The thing that got me most was when Donald Trump, who had never taken a position on any race case in New York, bought ads to advocate for executing these boys, to give them the death penalty,” remembered Rev. Al Sharpton. “Tonight, as celebratory as this is and as much as I salute Ava, let’s not forget that we’re sitting in the Apollo Theater, and he’s sitting in the White House.”
Justin Cunningham, who plays the adult Kevin Richardson, says the series is about more than the visitation of justice. “The damage is done and the damage is continuing for a lot of people in this country still. I don’t think it’s about asking ‘has justice been served,’ but has our society been righteous in how we view people of color, how we view black men and how we understand our justice system? Have we been righteous in doing that?”
“When They See Us” debuts May 31 on Netflix.