How 'When They See Us' Puts Trump in the Hot Seat 

When They See Us Still 20 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix

When They See Us, Ava DuVernay's new Netflix miniseries, wants viewers to see Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana Jr. and Korey Wise. For most of their lives, the five men have been known as the "Central Park Five" and now, thanks to the Oscar-nominated director's vision, they are breaking free of their politicized moniker and reclaiming their identities.

"I would like to see the title come to life: We see them. We heard the story, especially us as New Yorkers, and kind of know the central facts. But we have not seen these men as individuals since they were tied together as the Central Park Five," Jharrel Jerome told The Hollywood Reporter at the miniseries' recent New York City premiere. "Enough of the Central Park Five, that’s the moniker the New York Times gave them. They are who they are. They are five different men and they’re individuals."

The four-part miniseries, which is now streaming, explores the famous true story of the five Harlem teens of color who were wrongfully convicted of the rape of a white female jogger in the 1989 Central Park case. In 2002, after serving six to 13 years in prison, all five convictions were overturned when another man confessed to the crime; DNA confirmed his guilt and exonerated them. 

In a cover story with The Hollywood Reporter, DuVernay, who co-wrote and directed the four parts, explained how she licensed the rights to the group's stories after Santana Jr. reached out to her on Twitter. DuVernay, who explored systemic racism and injustice with her Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, excludes the collective moniker in her retelling. "It wasn't an idea that I pitched to them," she explained in the cover story. "It was an idea that they pitched to me, and I was honored that they chose me."

Over the four episodes, When They See Us spans 25 years. One set of younger actors plays the five boys who appear in the first half of the series (Caleel Harris, Asante Blackk, Marquis Rodriguez and Ethan Herisse), and another set plays them later as adults (Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk, Justin Cunningham and Freddy Miyares). Jerome is the exception: the Moonlight breakout plays Wise in both timelines. While the four other boys were 14 and 15 years old and served about seven-year sentences as juveniles, Wise was tried as an adult and sent to Rikers Island. He served 13 years before the exoneration came; the rest of the men had re-entered society by that time.

"We didn’t have many conversations about his time [in prison]. He didn’t need to talk about it for me to learn exactly who he was," Jerome said of When They See Us focusing on Wise's incarceration in the impactful and extended final episode. "The solitary scenes were definitely hard, every prison scene was incredibly difficult," Jerome continued, "but I was trying to find his youth, his happiness and his joy. You only really see his interrogation stuff online. I was really trying to find out who he was before. And who he was before is who he is now. He didn’t lose that. Sixteen-year-old Korey is still inside of him. So just speaking with him and sitting with him was all the work I needed."

The premiere brought the group back to Harlem for a screening at the famed Apollo Theater. Jerome was joined by a sprawling cast that includes Michael K. Williams, Niecy Nash, John Leguizamo, Vera Farmiga, Joshua Jackson, Blair Underwood, Famke Janssen and Dascha Polanco, as well as Oprah Winfrey, an executive producer with her Harpo Films shingle. (Felicity Huffman, who plays the sex crimes prosecutor in the case, Linda Fairstein, was absent.)  Also in attendance were McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana and Wise, and the group — who actively speak about their case and work with the Innocence Project — were celebrated on stage to cap off the event.

Growing up in New York, both Jerome and Rodriguez, who plays young Santana Jr., were warned about the case as a cautionary tale. "I’m from the Bronx and 21," said Jerome. "This was way before me but growing up, it was almost a lesson. Their story was among other stories. These men are so important but we have to remember that they are also important for everyone else. There are so many men going through it. There’s probably someone today who just got picked up for no reason." Rodriguez, who is from Brooklyn, added to THR, "My mom kept me informed about the gross miscarriage of justice that happened in this city to black and brown boys in an effort to keep me safe."

When They See Us exposes the prosecutorial misconduct, police racial profiling and media bias that led to the manipulated charges, coerced confessions and wrongful convictions of the five boys. Despite there being no physical evidence linking them to the crime, they were still found guilty.

"The DNA didn't match up. You see how there’s only one set of footprints at the crime site, but suddenly there’s five attackers. The marks on the body are from a frontal attack, and yet somehow there’s supposed to be five people around her. The kids, none of whom had sex, didn’t have any ability to describe a sexual attack. In their 'confessions,' they are speaking so obviously like children. These are supposed to be violent rapists and they’re saying, 'I touched her boobie.' Nothing adds up," Jackson, who plays McCray's defense lawyer Mickey Joseph, told THR of the narrative that was woven by the New York police and prosecutors.

As When They See Us shows, the boys, many of whom had never even met, were turned against each other when they were detained and questioned without adults or lawyers present. "With those coerced confessions, you realize that grown adults looked into the face of children and decided that they needed to be punished no matter what," Jackson continued. "The grotesquerie of that, of taking a little kid — a baby as young as 14 — and deciding, 'I don’t care about you, your humanity, who you are, or what your story could have been, you will be punished for something. Whether you did it or not doesn’t matter to me. Somebody needs to be punished and that’s going to be you.' And that’s grotesque."

Among all the adults in New York who failed the boys was Donald Trump. The then-real estate mogul took out ads in four New York City newspapers calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in the state. "He took those ads out three days after the crime. Not at the end of the trial. Not when they had been found guilty — even though they were innocent. He took those ads out before anything had been decided," said a fired-up Jackson. "That motherfucker called for 14-, 15- and 16-year-old children to be murdered. That’s a grown man taking out full page ads for the murder of children. Just let that sink in. He was calling for the murder of children. That’s the president of the United States. The murder of children. It can’t be said enough. He’s not on the wrong side of history. He is the epitome of the problem."

The gut punch of Trump pedaling what Jackson refers to as "straight-up racism" in When They See Us will not be lost on viewers. Salaam's mother (Aunjanue Ellis) is asked about her thoughts on Trump calling for the death penalty by a reporter and later, when the news airs an interview where Trump talks about "a black" and how he would love to be a "well-educated black" because they have an advantage, another woman tells Salaam's mother, "Don't worry, his 10 minutes is almost up." At the end of the film, when the free men are being celebrated in New York City, the woman hosting the rally calls out "puppets like Donald Trump" for a closing blow.

"The fact that this story is still so prescient 30 years later is very telling about where this city and where this country is right now," said Rodriguez. "Their experience doesn’t feel dated at all because it’s still happening. We need to figure out a way to make steps toward it feeling like we’re making some sort of change. You can’t fix something that you’re pretending isn’t there. I would love an overall blanket acknowledgement of, 'We did this. This is what we do still to boys and men of color and women of color and people of color. This is what we’re doing, so let’s acknowledge that it’s happening and then work to fix it.'"

Jane Rosenthal, an executive producer with Tribeca Productions, points out the problem at the top. "As of two years ago, [Trump] still thought they were guilty. I guess he doesn’t read facts," she told THR. "Our country has more people of color incarcerated and we have more people overall incarcerated than any country in the world. That right there is wrong. We need to be adjusting our education system. It costs more to house a person in prison than it does to educate. There are still juveniles at Rikers Island and families that can’t post bail. This story could be anybody."

She continued, "Yes, an apology [from Trump] would be nice, but an apology still doesn’t bring back all those years. Hopefully what When They See Us does is to say, 'I’m sorry' and to celebrate the spirit of the five men, their souls and who they’ve grown into. The beautiful men that they’ve grown into."

A collective hope is that When They See Us will have the power to change the conversation around the criminal justice system. "As a young black man, this is one of those stories that has a profound impact on you," Ty Jones, who plays a prison guard, told THR. "But I also remember that this was much bigger than Trump. This was a macro-societal thing. The idea of dark skin — what does that mean to folks? Does it instill fear, intimidation? And when it’s pushed up against something like crime, it gets escalated to something else where boys are being sentenced to life in prison. We’re seeing white boys do very similar things and are getting off. We see cops kill people on film and they’re getting off. There’s a much bigger conversation that I think this can ignite."

Nash, who plays the mother to Wise, echoed that sentiment: "This is a story about the lack of justice and the humanity that’s needed because not everybody you see in handcuffs is an animal, a monster, a criminal — or guilty. This is the very first time these boys got to tell their own narrative. And this narrative is the truth. Everything else was a lie."

Before their exoneration, the third episode of When They See Us follows the four men as they attempt to re-enter society. "It’s one thing to be in prison, it’s another to be in prison unjustly, and then it’s another thing to come out of prison with that stigma and the charges," Miyares, who plays adult Santana Jr. and who goes back to prison for violating his probation, told THR. "The story that we tell after the second episode deals with the hardship, the labor that these gentlemen had to deal with as they try to adjust to society after most of your life has been stripped, especially your adolescence. These are the most formative years of your lives and they were spent in prison. And what that does to an individual is horrifying. And it’s not just individuals who are affected: It’s their families, their communities. It has a far-spanning reach."

On a local level, Miyares says checks and balances need to be put in place. "Coerced confessions are a direct result of the interrogation process and there should be a clear fix to adjust that," he said. "There needs to be more attention placed on the officers running these interrogations, but  it goes deeper into the communities and the communities of the youth. Making sure they are safe and taken care of and supported. Cops don’t need to be against the minorities or the youth. Hopefully with time, there’s a balance so we can feel safe with the law enforcement."

Ultimately, it's the confession from a fellow prisoner that clears their names. When They See Us shows how Matias Reyes (played by Reece Noi) crossed paths twice with Wise while they were incarcerated together before ultimately confessing to the attack on jogger Trisha Meili, who was anonymous during the trail and revealed her name publicly after Reyes' confession. "Korey still has a scar from when Matias attacked him when he was 16," Noi told THR of the pair's first encounter. The actor then got choked up when talking about how negligent the system was to not investigate Reyes, a man who was already incarcerated for a rape and murder in New York. "It goes toward how disregarded young black and brown boys were and still are. It’s about dehumanization. And you’ve got a whole group of boys that were dehumanized and when you dehumanize someone, it’s easy to mistreat them."

The second confrontation between Reyes and Wise is more peaceful and happens years later, shortly before Reyes confesses to the crime. "He speaks to Korey in the courtyard about how he found God. Part of me wants to believe he felt like this was the right thing to do, but there’s also the cynic in me that asks: 'Was it for the glory?'" said Noi. Part of the extensive research that was provided to the cast by DuVernay included the audio recording of Reyes' prison confession. "I wasn’t sure how remorseful he was. It begins very descriptive and then it’s almost relished. We had the four-minute audio where he discusses the crime and then we had the video where he’s interviewed for TV and he's more toned down."

McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana and Wise were eventually awarded a $41 million settlement from the city and received an apology from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014. All of the men eventually left the state and started families of their own, with Wise the only remaining city resident. Of the film's final scene, where Wise (Jerome) returns to the spot where he made the fateful decision to leave his girlfriend and head into the park on the night of the attack, Jerome says the callback to that sliding doors moment is a tribute to the man he plays. 

"I wore exactly what he would wear, head to toe," said Jerome. "Korey walking through Harlem, saying hi to everybody, that’s the tribute. Because if you walk with him through Harlem today, he knows everybody and he says hi to everybody. He’s going everywhere and makes sure he sees everyone. That’s Corey Wise."