‘When They See Us’ Cast Reflects on Justice, Righteousness and Working With the Central Park Five

“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.

Popular on Variety

More Scene


    Emmys 2019: Inside All the Hottest Pre-Parties

    It’s (Emmys) party time! Before the 71st annual Emmys go live on Sunday, stars and execs are keeping busy by party-hopping in the days leading up to the big show. Related Ava DuVernay, Mark Ruffalo Selected for SAG-AFTRA Foundation Honors Emmys: Looking Ahead to 2020, Here Are Some of the Rules That the TV Academy [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez Green Dress

    Jennifer Lopez Closes Out Versace Show in Famous Green Grammys Dress

    Jennifer Lopez has found her way back into the Versace dress that broke the internet in 2000. The “Hustlers” star closed out Versace’s Spring 2020 show in a re-worked version of the revealing, bright green silk chiffon dress that she wore to the Grammy Awards 20 years ago. The dress quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon, [...]

  • 10 Storytellers to Watch

    Variety Celebrates Inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch Event

    Storytellers from across the spectrum of entertainment — film, literature, podcasting and play writing — were honored Thursday at Variety’s inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch luncheon at Gramercy Park Hotel, hosted with partner the Independent Filmmaker Project and presented by Audible. Honorees Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of “Friday Black”; “Limetown” podcasters Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie; [...]

  • Demi Moore Corporate Animals

    Demi Moore Teases Upcoming Memoir 'Inside Out,' Talks 'Corporate Animals' Team Bonding

    As Demi Moore gears up for the Sept. 24 release of her autobiography “Inside Out,” the actress says she feels like a weight has been lifted. “Even the stuff that I may have been nervous about is completely lifting…because it’s a process,” Moore told Variety at the premiere of her upcoming film “Corporate Animals” at [...]

  • Connie Britton BlogHer Summit

    Connie Britton on ‘Friday Night Lights’ Remake: ‘You Need to Let it Go’

    Connie Britton opened up at a fireside chat Wednesday at the #BlogHer19 Creators Summit in Brooklyn by talking about one of her most beloved roles — Tami Taylor in the fan favorite series “Friday Night Lights.” When asked if a remake of the sports cult film and Emmy-winning TV show is in the works she [...]

  • Mariah Carey Tracee Ellis Ross

    Mariah Carey, Tracee Ellis Ross Celebrate Biracial Heritage at “Mixed-ish” Premiere

    Mariah Carey and Tracee Ellis Ross embraced their “ish” at Tuesday night’s series premiere event for ABC’s “Mixed-ish” by reflecting on how their biracial identity makes working on the new show even more personal. “I’m just so thankful that this show exists,” Carey told the assembled crowd during a Q&A with series creator Kenya Barris. [...]

  • #WorldIsInOurHands Campaign

    Rainn Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Joaquin Phoenix And More Join #WorldIsInOurHands Campaign

    At the 44th annual Toronto Film Festival last week, in addition to attending red-carpet premieres and promoting films, some stars also joined in the fight to tackle the climate crisis. Antonio Banderas, Susan Sarandon, Joaquin Phoenix, Rainn Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Neve Campbell and Alfre Woodard are among the bold-faced names to join forces with the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content