The morning after Ava DuVernay’s four-part Netflix miniseries about the Central Park Five, When They See Us, premiered at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, she was in a daze.
“I don’t drink, and I don’t do any other kinds of substances,” she told Rolling Stone, “but I think I have a hangover.”
She had the headache, but also the hazy memory of the community she’d felt the previous night, screening her labor of love in the neighborhood that raised the five teenagers wrongfully convicted of brutally raping jogger Trisha Meili on April 19, 1989.
It was a whirlwind of fellowship that involved “a lot of smiles, hugs, and a lot of tears,” DuVernay said.
When They See Us debuted on Netflix on May 31.
The true and gripping tale of five boys of color between the ages of 14 and 16 who were forced to falsely confess to the rape of a White woman in New York’s Central Park, has received critical acclaim with reviewers noting that it’s “impassioned,” and “moving.”
One critic said it’s “must-see TV.”
We already have a category of movies that we expect to artfully, if painfully edify (think of 12 Years a Slave, or Schindler’s List) but we’re not acculturated to it on television, said Willa Paskin of Slate magazine.
On April 19, 1989, the lives of Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise changed forever.
News media described them as “a wolf pack,” and “animals,” and then-citizen Donald Trump took out a full-page ad in four New York City area newspapers attacking the youth and calling for the return of the death penalty.
Decades after they’d been exonerated, Trump still has refused to rescind his damning words against the men and he even denounced a multi-million civil settlement reached between New York City and the five men.
“Trump was the fire starter,” Salaam said. “Common citizens were being manipulated and swayed into believing that we were guilty.”
The police-coerced confessions were the only evidence against them, but racism made the boys convenient scapegoats and metaphors for all that had gone wrong in a stratified, corrupt, crime-ridden, rape-infested, and fearful New York City, according to Slate.
DuVernay, who took on the project after Santana suggested it to her via tweet, wants to dramatize what the criminal justice system and New York City stole from these innocent teenagers.
The series begins on the day of the rape. Antron (Caleel Harris and, as an adult, Jovan Adepo), Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez and Freddy Miyares), Kevin (Asante Blackk and Justin Cunningham), Yusef (Ethan Herisse and Chris Chalk), and Korey (Jharrel Jerome) are going about their regular lives: talking about the Yankees with a father and dreaming of becoming a shortstop; kissing a girlfriend; lugging an instrument around after school.
Though they don’t know each other particularly well, they all wind up in a group of about 25 boys who head into the park that night, where some goof around, while others harass bikers or a homeless guy.
The police descend, arresting a handful of them, but the cops don’t consider any of them suspects in anything particularly serious.
That changes after the rape victim is discovered in the early hours of the morning and Assistant District Attorney Linda Fairstein decides the boys’ presence in the park that night can’t be a coincidence.
Despite there being no physical evidence that the boys were involved, the police set out to make the facts fit the theory of the case.
They start trying to get confessions and names, which they use to pick up additional suspects.
Korey Wise, whose name is not on the police’s list, goes down to the precinct with Yusef just to be a good friend.
He won’t leave police custody for more than a decade.
For his act of kindness, he will spend years at Rikers Island awaiting trial and then 13 years in an adult prison, the only one of the five who was 16 and so sentenced as an adult.
When Rolling Stone noted that this story had never been told from the perspective of the five men, DuVernay said she started just speaking with the men first.
“That was my first way in. And from there I folded in all of the court transcripts, different records and files that we were able to get a hold of through public means or private transfer,” DuVernay said.
“We then read every single stitch of press coverage to really get an understanding of the ways in which this was being reported, to understand the propaganda around this case. You know, there was a study done that 89% of the articles that were written at the time, by the New York papers, didn’t even use the word ‘alleged,’” DuVernay said.
“I also talked with academics to get underneath the state of New York City at the time. What were the political motivations?
“But it always came back to the men and then their families. Over a four-year period, it was just exhaustive. Interviews, but sometimes just spending time. Lunches, dinners, just getting to know them. Sometimes it’s the little things more than just the core stories.”