”A large part of what the story is, is about redressing the media narratives and how these boys — and men now — were done wrong in the narratives that were told that around them and about them and that’s one of them,” ‘When They See Us’ actor Joshua Jackson told Variety on the red carpet at the ACLU SoCal’s luncheon. The actor was talking about reframing the men as the “Exonerated Five.”
“In calling them the ‘Central Park Five,’ we reinforce this idea — that they were there and had anything to do with this — that that was the central backbone of their life. But they’re not allowed to move on from it. They are exonerated and they are the victims of this case, not the perpetrators.”
Jackson noted that the series was initially titled “The Central Park Five,” before it was changed to “When They See Us.” “I’ll just say for myself, we’re lazy,” he explained of the moniker. “And so that label, it’s kind of catchy and it stuck and we just stayed there, when that’s not in any way the fullness of this story. And it’s certainly not the fullness of these men’s lives and what they’ve been able to do since they were released. And then fought for their exoneration.”
The five men — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise – were awarded the Roger Baldwin Courage award at the organization’s annual event, a moment in the effort toward their public redemption that began with the Netflix series. All five men were present for the ceremony Friday afternoon at the JW Mariott in Downtown Los Angeles, while Jackson represented the cast of the limited series, which includes Niecy Nash, Michael K. Williams, John Leguizamo, Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, Asante Blackk and Jharrel Jerome.
Of receiving the inaugural award, Salaam told Variety that “as survivors of this tragedy — and you know, this was such an egregious miscarriage of justice — but as survivors and of heroes of this story, it’s tremendous to be honored in such a way.”
Santana added that the men hope to make change by telling their story, as painful as it may be to relive it. “We lost our voices in 1989 and we regained them in 2012 when the documentary came out,” he explained. “We found that the youth was our main focus — to give back to them and to talk to them and hopefully they won’t be another Central Park Five.”
Presenting to the “Exonerated Five” was actor Michael B. Jordan, who starred in “Fruitvale Station,” a film depicting the true story of Oscar Grant, a young black man killed by police in Oakland in 2009.
“It was East Coast news, but a familiar story to anyone growing up black in America. Mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins – they would sit us down for the, ‘Be careful’ talk,” Jordan said on-stage, visibly emotional after watching a trailer for the series, which played for the audience. “’It’s dangerous in America when you’re living in a black body.’ We learned about Emmett Till, the Jena Six, Sean Bell and we learned about the young men who were called ‘The Central Park Five.’ We didn’t know their names, but we knew their ages – 14, 15, 16 — the same age we were. It could be us.”
Jordan read from prepared remarks about his perspective on the series as he’s experienced it as a viewer, saying that he was honored to present awards to the men at the center of the story and its creator, director Ava DuVernay. DuVernay was unable to attend the luncheon, so Salaam accepted the Social Responsibility in Media Award on her behalf.
“I salute Ava for her attention. After decades of being known as the ‘Central Park Five,’ we thank Ava for acknowledging our humanity, and telling our story with honesty and factual representation. We were boys when we were sent to prison,” Salaam began before taking a long pause and beginning to cry on stage, before a crowd standing in his honor. “And we were men when we came out. We had to struggle to break the label the media gave us [and] many of us stumbled forward, falling on our face at times. We thank Ava for her tireless efforts. I’m not ashamed to cry in front of you.”
After accepting the award for DuVernay, all five men took the stage to accept the courage award, which the ACLU created in their honor. Friday’s award was one of the many events keeping ‘When They See Us’ in the headlines after the series’ debut last month. Of the cultural conversation the series has created, Jackson told Variety “that part is more than you can ever hope for.”
“But it also means that we’re ready for it and that we culturally are ready for it. And it’s forcing some interesting introspection on white people,” he concluded. “We have to have this ugly, uncomfortable conversation if we’re going to move forward.”
“When They See Us” is streaming on Netflix.