The Central Park Five case sent shockwaves through America in 1989, when five African American and Latino teenagers were falsely accused and convicted of raping jogger Trisha Meili.
Thirty years later, director Ava DuVernay, whose Oscar-nominated films "Selma" and "13th" have unflinchingly explored racial injustice, brings their story to the small screen with a star-studded cast led by Niecy Nash, Michael K. Williams and Felicity Huffman.
"When They See Us," a four-part miniseries due Friday on Netflix, dramatizes the events before and after the headline-making trial, showing how detectives and prosecutors manipulated and coerced the innocent young men: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, at 16, the oldest of the group and the only one sentenced as an adult.
All five were exonerated in 2002 when serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed he was Meili's sole attacker. But even now, the pain of years lost behind bars runs deep. DuVernay, 46, explains how her emotional conversations with the men shaped "When They See Us," and why their story still resonates.
Question: In 2015, Raymond Santana suggested a Central Park Five movie to you on Twitter, and you guys met for dinner a couple of months later. Was there something he said during that first conversation that made you realize you needed to tell this story?
Ava DuVernay: No, you know what it was? It was something that I heard about in my youth. I was a young person on the West Coast who grew up in Compton. These guys were on the East Coast growing up in Harlem. So I felt connected to the story in a way that was deeply personal for me at that time because we were so close in age. But after I sat down with these guys, and I'm looking them in the eye and I'm hearing their stories, I just got drawn in. I wanted people to know the nuance of what they were telling me, which is nuance that had been completely lost when I think about the public perception of the case.
Q: You’ve said you wanted to ask viewers, "What do you see when you see black and brown boys?" How did that question inform the series as a whole?
DuVernay: It really did factor into the structure. There's a world in which this (series) is more of a true crime, where we're closely uncovering the case layer by layer, and staying in the point of view of the police and the prosecutors to "reveal" what happened. But the decision to firmly root every single frame, every line, every scene in the men was my guiding light. It all fell into place pretty organically once I locked into, "Oh, it's got to be them and always them that you focus on. It's got to be their story truly, not just in name but always following their perspective."
Q: You dedicate the fourth and final episode entirely to Korey Wise's story. What was most important for you to convey about his experience?
DuVernay: Korey told me, "I don't consider myself Central Park Five. It's four plus one." That hit me in my heart in such a way that I said, "I'm not going to pretend or present that your experience is the same as the other men," because he went through a very singular experience: not just in relation to the other men but in terms of incarceration stories in general. His is very unique and also very telling in the way that we treat black and brown boys in this country and the way that we prosecute juveniles. Talking with him directly changed the form, because it made me want to have three episodes plus one, and make sure he had his own space.
Q: After tackling similar subject matter in "Middle of Nowhere" and "13th," did this feel like a natural next step or the completion of a trilogy?
DuVernay: I guess it is a trilogy, but that feels as if I'm not going to do more. I probably will, at some point in my career, address the American criminal justice system again. It is something that's very much of interest to me and I don't see it changing anytime soon, because the system is not changing.
But it felt like everything I made up until this point was for this. Whether it was the scale of "A Wrinkle in Time," or understanding the nuance of the families of the formerly incarcerated through "Middle of Nowhere," or some of the action and violence that I shot in "Selma," or all the history I delved into in "13th." Even "Queen Sugar," my (TV) series, and all the family dynamics. I really felt like I stepped onto the set for this fully prepared to tell the story and having the tools to tell it in the way that I wanted. It was the first time I've ever felt that way, and I hope it comes again.
Q: Aside from race, are there any other aspects of this case that you find particularly resonant in 2019?
DuVernay: The thing that's most important for me is the unmasking of what we call the American criminal justice system, which is inherently unjust. Beyond race, it's important that we know all of the levers that are pulled, all the profit that is being made, all of the political gain that is at the heart of locking millions of people away behind bars. If there's anything I want people to know, it's that yes, race and class are at the core of a lot of it, but it's political. It's profit-based. And it's something that can be changed if enough of us wake up and understand how we're pawns in it, how our tax dollars are being used, and decide that we want to do something about it.