Ava DuVernay Talks Linda Fairstein With Oprah Winfrey During 'When They See Us' Event

Something special happened inside Raleigh Studios on Sunday night, and Oprah Winfrey called it out almost immediately. “This is a moment we’re having right here,” she said. “A beautiful moment.”

The lights had just gone up during Netflix’s final For Your Consideration Emmy event in Los Angeles following a screening of the first episode of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us — a four-part limited series that tells the heart-wrenching story from 1989 of five American teenagers of color who were falsely convicted of a brutal crime they did not commit — and Winfrey was seated next to DuVernay with a big job to do. Together they would share the stage over the next hour and 45 minutes for back-to-back panels, the first of which featured 11 actors and three producers, and the second with the men, now known collectively as the Exonerated Five: Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise.

Cameras recorded the onstage action from Netflix's FYSEE event space, and the special will air Wednesday night on both Winfrey’s OWN and Netflix. Even without all the crews and headset-wearing producers hovering in the back behind hundreds of seated guests, DuVernay knew what kind of moments would come with Winfrey handling moderator duties. “We’re on a real Oprah Winfrey Show. OMG. I can’t even believe it.”

Things did get real. There were tears, personal and creative revelations, standing ovations and even some breaking news.

First the news. In the days following the series debut on May 31 in 190 countries via Netflix, Linda Fairstein, the onetime lead prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney's office who is portrayed onscreen by Felicity Huffman, has been the subject of intense scrutiny and backlash, both in real life and on social media (with the hashtag #CancelLindaFairstein). As a result, she resigned from the boards of Vassar College, God’s Love We Deliver and the Joyful Heart Foundation. In her main career since stepping away from the DA’s office, Fairstein has worked as a novelist and children’s book author, and just days ago, her publisher, Dutton, told the Associated Press that it had dropped her from its roster.

Winfrey was the first to bring up Fairstein’s name during the event, asking DuVernay for her response to what has happened in the past week. In doing so, Winfrey quoted Fairstein from an interview she did with The Daily Beast in which the latter called When They See Us “a basket of lies.” Winfrey then mentioned the board resignations and the publishing house fallout — greeted by applause from the audience — before posing the question: “What do you have to say?”

“I think that it’s important that people be held accountable,” explained DuVernay, an expert on America’s troubled criminal justice system after having spent years working on the Oscar-nominated documentary 13th. “And that accountability is happening in a way today that it did not happen for the real men 30 years ago. But I think that it would be a tragedy if this story and the telling of it came down to one woman being punished for what she did because it’s not about her. It’s not all about her. She is part of a system that’s not broken, it was built to be this way. It was built to oppress, it was built to control, it was built to shape our culture in a specific way that kept some people here and some people here. It was built for profit. It was built for political gain and power. And it is incumbent on us; it lives off us, our taxpayer dollars, our votes, the goods that we buy that are made inside of prisons. It lives off of our ignorance and we can no longer be ignorant. OK, Linda Fairstein. OK, Elizabeth Lederer. OK, all of these people on this particular case who need to be held accountable. But the real thing that we are all trying to do, all the artists who collaborate with me…our real goal is to be able to say, ‘Go America. Let’s do this. Let’s change this.’ You can’t change what you don’t know, so we came together to show you what you may not know. Now that you know, what will you do? How will you change this? That’s our goal.”

DuVernay’s intentions for bringing this notorious story to life was the theme of one of Winfrey’s first questions. But first she quoted a tweet from actor and producer LeVar Burton. The star of Roots, Burton tweeted June 2 that When They See Us is “essential viewing for EVERY American! As essential to your understanding of America as was Roots.” DuVernay called the compliment “one of the best reviews we could get.”

Winfrey then asked her friend why she changed the working title of the project from Central Park 5 to When They See Us. “I remember when there was some talk amongst the producers of whether or not we should keep that name or not keep that name, and you insisted that the name be changed. Why?,” asked Winfrey who had the inside scoop thanks to her role as an executive producer. “Central Park 5 felt like medicine, and this isn’t medicine,” DuVernay answered. “It felt like something that had been put upon the real men by the press, by the prosecutors, by the police. It took away their faces, it took away their families, it took away their pulses and their beating hearts.… We need to know them and say their names.”

Winfrey’s iconic interview skills were on full display Sunday night, and she made sure to say the names of each of the panelists, reserving a question or two for everyone who shared the stage with her and DuVernay. The first round of seated guests included Jharrel Jerome (who plays Wise), Asante Black (Richardson), Caleel Harris (McCray), Ethan Herisse (Salaam), Niecy Nash (Delores Wise), Josh Jackson (Mickey Joseph), Jovan Adepo (adult McCray), Chris Chalk (adult Salaam), Freddy Miyares (Santana), Justin Cunningham (adult Richardson), Michael K. Williams (Bobby McCray), Jane Rosenthal (executive producer), Berry Welsh (executive producer) and Jonathan King (executive producer).

To the actors, Winfrey said that “everybody’s performance is seared on my heart,” but she singled out Jerome’s portrayal of Wise. “I felt personally gutted by yours,” she told him of the two-handed task of playing Wise as a teen and later, as an adult, who spent years confined to New York’s Rikers Island prison. “I don’t have words to describe what your artistry did for all of us.”

Jerome, who first broke out with his role in Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning film Moonlight, told Winfrey that playing Wise was the hardest thing he’s ever done “or allowed myself to do.” Asked to elaborate on his process, Jerome explained that once he nailed Wise’s unique voice and Harlem accent, everything just fell into place. And into his body. “Once I found the voice, it went down into the body and into the legs,” he said. “It was so weird. It was the first time I stepped out of my body and into someone else’s.” Jerome said that he got help from Wise himself thanks to a bonding session during which they walked around New York and Wise bought him a pair of sneakers. “That’s his spirit and that kept me calm,” he added. “Korey was my therapist.”

Winfrey also asked Williams about his process, specifically where he pulled his emotions from to play the father of McCray, a man who convinced his son to lie to police at the beginning of the investigation. “I remember the fear,” said Williams. “I’m a victim of wilding. I got jumped by a pack of young boys and I almost lost my life. I know that trauma.… I could’ve easily been one of those boys in New York City.”

“You nailed that thing,” Winfrey told him, calling out the way he portrayed a father’s shame so expertly. She then turned her attention to Jackson, who played defense attorney Mickey Joseph. “What did you learn about the justice system?”

“Nothing good,” Jackson said, without missing a beat. “Thankfully Mickey was on the right side of the argument. He really was a true believer. What you see in the show is right and real. They pulled apart pieces that didn’t make any sense.… I don’t know about y’all but [even] knowing where the story is going, I thought somebody is going to stop this and say, ‘We can’t do this to these children.’ There were two trials and they got it wrong both times. What did I learn about the justice system? It’s the wrong name for it.”

Saved for last, Nash told Winfrey about her phone call to the woman she portrays, Delores Wise, and what an emotional connection that proved to be. “One thing I can tell you is that her pain was so palpable,” said Nash. “That residue that was on the altar of her heart, you can’t tell somebody when to brush that off.”

Nash may be best known for her comedic work — she currently stars on TNT’s Claws and directed one of the forthcoming episodes — and Winfrey asked her when she knew that she could do both drama and comedy. When she was five years old, Nash said she caught a glimpse of Lola Falana in a red dress and instantly gravitated toward her talent. “I never thought being funny was anything,” she said, before adding that she has waited a long time to express the full range of her talents. “People who can make you laugh can make you cry.”

Tears came during the second panel of the evening, which featured the Exonerated Five together on stage. The men were greeted by a standing ovation and hugs from both Winfrey and DuVernay, the latter of whom has been working on the story ever since Santana reached out to her via Twitter to pitch her the story. DuVernay has said that her favorite scenes from the limited series are the ones that depict the carefree moments of their respective days leading up to the night in Central Park on April 18, 1989. That’s where Winfrey opened the conversation — asking each of them to describe the boy he was on that fateful day. Salaam said, “I think about that often. My whole life changed. I went from riding a skateboard and climbing trees. The most romantic thing I did was walk around the lake and hold hands.”

Richardson said he was a humble naive kid who was just excited to be out of school for Easter vacation, while Santana said he loved to sketch and listen to hip-hop or spend his father’s money shopping at the Gap. Fairstein’s name came up again when Winfrey asked the men if they blamed the prosecutor for what happened. Wise answered first by saying, “She was doing her job, and it caught up to her.” 

Santana said that when the evidence didn’t add up, she could’ve changed course but chose not to. “The moment the DNA comes back and it doesn’t match — nothing matches — this was her chance to take a step back and re-evaluate. That’s a pivotal moment, and she had the power to do the right thing and she fumbled.”

The choices and the power of Fairstein and others sent the teens to prison. Winfrey asked them how they were able to keep their sanity behind bars knowing they were innocent. Salaam credited meditation. “I knew one day I would step out of this hell,” he said. “How am I going to step back into this world? How am I going to make sure I don’t fall on my face? Meditation was tremendous.”

What came next was the night’s most emotional moment, when McCray revealed that even years later, he’s having a difficult time moving forward in his life. “I’m damaged,” he told Winfrey. “I need help. I know it. The system broke a lot of things in me that can’t be fixed.… I’m struggling.”

He added that his wife wants him to seek therapy but he has refused. He has not forgiven his now-deceased father (“I hate him,” he said), and he recently lost his mother. “My life is ruined,” he added. McCray said that he appreciated how When They See Us turned out but that it has “brought back a lot of pain.” He broke down in tears and was comforted by Santana. 

Salaam said it has allowed him to move through the world by proudly raising his head. “I’ve said to Ava, thank you for protecting us. Now we know it’s not just us, but it’s us.”

The validation from Santana, Richardson, McCray, Salaam and Wise is what matters most to DuVernay. While Sunday night was definitely a moment, as Winfrey mentioned, DuVernay got hers with the men a while back when Netflix flew them out for a private screening ahead of the series debut. “I wanted them to love it,” she explained, adding that she's not read any of the reviews because their opinions are the ones she treasures most. “Afterward, they embraced each other.… There’s nothing else that can beat that moment.”

In return, the filmmaker told them that her hope is that they don’t have to tell this story again because they now have this: “We believe you, and we see you.”