Ava DuVernay Bringing 'When They See Us' Subjects as Her Emmy Dates

When they See Us Panel - Getty - H 2019
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As part of a For Your Consideration event on Sunday night, J.J. Abrams moderated a panel for Netflix's limited series When They See Us, and was not shy about gushing over writer-director Ava DuVernay

Abrams, who has been close friends with DuVernay since they met at the White House in 2014, told the audience on the Paramount Pictures lot that he was "gut-punched" by the four-part Netflix series about the so-called Central Park Five, with "the pain of it, the anguish, the agony of it, and yet the way it was made, you cannot look away. That is an act of remarkable tightrope walk-ery that just blows my mind and breaks my heart."

The director hosted a panel of many of the show's Emmy nominees, including DuVernay, Jharrel Jerome, Niecy Nash, Asante Black, Aunjanue Ellis, Marsha Stephanie Blake and composer Kris Bowers. After bringing the group onstage, Abrams told DuVernay, "As a white dude, I've got to say, watching this thing ?— I felt like I knew stuff, and once again you've enlightened me in a way that just floored me. My whole family, watching that together with [wife] Katie [McGrath] and the kids, we were all just stunned and speechless for so long."  

During the conversation, DuVernay revealed that not only does she talk to the real-life Central Park Five members on a weekly, if not daily, basis, but she's also bringing all five as her dates to the Emmys, where the show is up for 16 awards. 

"When I called them to tell them about the Emmys, none of them knew about it," she recalled. "It was about an hour later and they're on the East Coast, and I called them, like, 'So? Right?' And they're like, 'Hey, what's up?'" she joked. "I'm, like, 'The Emmys!' Literally I had to explain to them what it was, for one of them I had to say, 'It's like the Grammys, but TV.'"

DuVernay, who wrote, helmed and executive produced the limited series, also discussed why she changed the name from simply Central Park Five to When They See Us just three months before she finished editing and after Netflix had promoted the show under the previous title. 

"'Central Park Five' I associate with a moniker that was given to these men and thrust upon them. They did not choose it and it's not who they are," she said. "They are Korey [Wise], Antron [McCray], Raymond [Santana], Kevin [Richardson] and Yusef [Salaam]. They have mothers, they have dreams, they have families, they have beating hearts and are human beings and they're not this moniker, and I didn't want it."

DuVernay added that beyond just focusing on the case, she wanted the series to educate people on every part of the criminal justice system. 

"Part one is about police interaction with young black men on the street, how that interaction and presumption of guilt happens; it's about precinct behavior, it's about your rights, its about all of these things that we get caught in. Part two is about bail, it's about trials and defense attorneys and prosecutors and how all of that is tilted away from being for many people of color, particularly black men," DuVernay explained. "Part three is about juvenile detention and post incarceration, the way we strip rights from people who've done their time. We say, 'This is the time you need to do for your crime,' and then after they do that time, okay, you come out, but you're still not a full citizen; can't vote, can't get a student loan, can't move, can't get an apartment, can't get anything, it's like an indentured servitude. And then you go to part four, which is about incarceration itself as we go through the journey of Korey Wise, and you're locked in part four and doing the time with him, you're in there with him."

Though it's been 30 years since the Central Park Five case, the themes of the show feel timelier than ever, Jerome, who plays Wise, told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the panel: "I think in 2019, 30 years later while this stuff is still going on — if anything even worse — because it's not being covered by media at all, I think it's very important. Plus we have a specific leader in this country who has a lot to do with the project, so it's very convenient that he happens to be in office as we do this project." 

Nash, who plays Wise's mother Delores, added that the series' timeliness is because of "the narrative that exists in America right now, that you can be a black or a brown child and get stopped by the police and maybe not come home, as opposed to somebody who can shoot up a church or a Walmart or a school and be walked out very gently without a scratch. Now is the time."