The cast and producers behind “When They See Us” sat down for a conversation with Oprah Winfrey on Sunday night at Netflix’s FYSEE location in Hollywood. But the night’s discussion wasn’t just about the stars of the limited series. Winfrey also sat down with the five men, formerly referred to as “The Central Park Five” and now “The Exonerated Five” — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise — for the first time.
“I’m excited about it because they’re excited about it,” series creator and director Ava DuVernay told Variety on the red carpet before the taping. “At one point, one of them had said to me a couple of years ago during the research period, that when they were young, they’d wished that they could just get to Oprah. [They thought] if they could get to Oprah and tell their story, maybe then people can hear their side because they knew how powerful she was, how much people listen to her. And it didn’t happen at the time they were incarcerated, they were guilty, people threw them away, and now it is their time. And so the fact that they get to sit down with her and finally tell her — her specifically– their story is so emotional to me, so moving.”
After news broke on Friday that Oprah would be interviewing the Exonerated Five, Salaam spoke to Variety at the 25th annual ACLU of Southern California luncheon.
“Korey said once that they put a bounty on our heads by taking out these full-page ads calling for our deaths. And in many ways, this is life after death,” Salaam said, adding that words couldn’t describe the honor that they’re feeling right now at this attention. “And for Oprah to be here, to be whispering our names — I mean, of course she’s shouting it — but to be whispering our names, it is just magnificent.”
The cast of “When They See Us,” was also thrilled to be saluted Winfrey. Jharrel Jerome, who played Korey Wise, shared what it was like when the TV icon posted about his performance on social media.
“I was trying to eat a slice of pizza and that dropped to the floor real quick because I was freaking out,’ Jerome told Variety, adding that he called his mom, who shared his overwhelmed excitement. “I got to meet her last night, and just to have hugged her and met her after seeing that post felt amazing, because I always thought that when I was going to see Oprah, I’d be like crying, [but] instead she’s showing me love.”
Niecy Nash, who played Wise’s mother Delores echoed her on-screen son’s sentiment, saying that the Winfrey sent her a text about her performance in the series.
“Listen, we respect Oprah so much. We love her so much.” Nash said, laughing. “I was so surprised to find out that the queen uses clapping emojis in between each word: ‘Girl. You killed it. Bravo sister.’”
During the panel, DuVernay and the cast opened up about the preparation process for shooting such a series that packs such an emotional punch. DuVernay, for example, made sure there was an on-site grief counselor and 24/7 hotline for both the actors and crew to use as support when filming intense scenes, referencing her past films such as “Selma” and “13,” as inspirations for implementing accessible and private support.
“I knew I had some actors [in those films] that were really affected and had no way to talk it out, so we were able to set up a hotline so that any time, 24 hours, when you needed to talk to someone, you could – privately and anonymously,” she explained. “I knew a lot of crew that used it. We forget about the crew. The actors are coming in and out on certain days, but the crew is there every single day seeing it all. They saw what happened to every single boy, takes done again and again.”
The young actors on stage also praised DuVernay for her dedication to accurately portraying every small aspect of the men’s stories. Freddy Miyares, who played the older Raymond Santana, told a story about a time on set when two New York residents who lived on one of the streets where they were filming gave the director tips on how to portray they way police interact with young Black men in the area more authentically.
“The cops would be harsher. They wouldn’t be holding him, they’d be pushing him down,” Miyares recalled the two men telling DuVernay.
“And Ava took the time to listen to the suggestion and she immediately implemented that suggestion,” the actor continued. “And that’s what showed up – that’s the take that was eventually used and that just goes to show that she’s willing to put herself aside.”
Emotions ramped up once the exonerated men at the center of the real story took the stage and Winfrey asked them hard-hitting questions about redeeming their lives after prison, watching their stories for the first time on screen, and coming to peace with the experience.
One particularly heavy moment happened when Winfrey questioned Wise about going to the police department as law enforcement began searching for suspects in the 1989 case. As portrayed in the first episode of the series, Wise wasn’t initially a suspect and simply went along to support Salaam, before investigator tied him into the story.
When asked if he regrets that decision, he said “I do” in between sobs. “I do, I don’t. I do, I don’t,” he continued, “Mixed feelings.”
Winfrey also asked McCray about his feelings towards his father, who played a part in his ultimate false confession. After receiving threats from the police, McCray’s father told his son to tell the police whatever they wanted to hear in hopes that complying would help his son be freed. Despite the sympathy DuVernay brought out in Michael Kenneth William’s portrayal of the character, McCrary has no forgiveness for him. “I hate him,” he said. “I could never even think about doing that to my own kids.”
Before wrapping up, Winfrey brought up the idea of the series serving as a form of redemption for the men.
“It feels like this movie has brought, not just a sense of recognition to exonerate the Five, but it feels like something is happening in the whole country. That this art has now elevated the conversation to the point that we at least are willing to look at the injustices,” she declared. “You won.”