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“The industry stuff is a nice cherry on top, but nothing can replace the moment when the men saw it for the first time and turned around to me in the screening room with tears in their eyes,” creator/director Ava DuVernay says of her four-part Netflix series, which illuminates the stories of five black and Latino men who were wrongfully convicted of rape in the 1989 Central Park jogger case. DuVernay, 46, spoke to THR about When They See Us‘ 16 nominations, capturing the criminal justice system and the show’s international appeal.
How did the Exonerated Five react to the Emmy nominations?
When I called the guys, I had to explain to them what the Emmys were, and I think that is very telling. This ceremony and this experience is very isolated to our industry. You have people who are really living their lives deeply, meaningfully, that have no connection with our kind of laudatory celebrations. For them, their awards came from the way that their lives have changed, the way that people are now regarding them, the way that history has been rewritten. Now that they know, they’re getting their tuxes ready and they’re going to be up in there.
Niecy Nash tweeted about her nomination, emphasizing she’s more than a comedic actress. How did she come to portray Korey Wise’s mom?
I’d seen her do some work on an HBO show called Getting On that I was really impressed with. I cold-called her. I said I had a small part in Selma and would love to bring her down [to] be a part of that family, which she did and was lovely in a key scene. And I worked with her again on my Jay Z [and] Beyoncé visual film Family Feud. We’ve come to know each other personally, and I just knew of her desire to exercise all parts of her. She’s a very formidable artist and actress and so I knew she could do it. All of her emotions were very available. She was just real.
Nash’s role helped showcase how wide-reaching the effects of the wrongful convictions were. How important was that context in the series?
In order to “humanize” — and I think that’s a violent word because it means that you’ve not been seen as or treated as human until this point — you have to treat the characters as humans. And that’s very much the case for people behind bars and people who have to interact with and engage with the criminal justice system, particularly prison. We need to make sure that we’re showing the totality of human beings, unfortunately, in order for some of us to realize that they should be cared for and regarded humanely. In order to do that, you have to construct the whole story. You bring in family. You bring in memory. You bring in dreams. You bring all of that.
What was it like watching Jharrell Jerome’s performance as Korey Wise unfold on set?
Every day was a real climb. The kind of emotions that he had to put himself through in order to get to where Korey was — that darkness [and] the nuance was all on his face and all on his body. We were really fortunate that our paths crossed in this moment so that we could serve each other within this piece as artists. I hope he has a long, storied career.
What has been the most surprising reaction to the series?
The international response has been a surprise to me in a really beautiful way. Some of the largest numbers that Netflix has shared with me are coming from outside of the U.S. We’ve been told as people of color [and] as marginalized people in this country that no one anywhere else is interested in our story [and] that black stories don’t travel overseas. We know all of those are lies, but to see it in real data and to see the response on social media from people from all different kinds of countries around the world has been especially gratifying.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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