The cast of Ava DuVernays devastating fact-based drama talk about the storys prescience and their memories of the original case


From the 39th floor of the Mandarin Oriental in New York, Central Parks spring blossom takes centre stage in a sweeping Manhattan panorama. But even from this high up, its impossible to see the parks entire expanse, from its southern base among midtowns designer boutiques and luxury penthouses to the public housing blocks and low income neighbourhood of East Harlem on its northern tip two and half miles away.

It was in the parks distant northern sector, 30 years ago, that an episode of horrific violence now woven into the citys history of racial injustice took place. And it is that incident that brings some of Americas finest television actors and brightest young prospects to this opulent hotel, with its jarringly obscured view, today.

When They See Usis a new four-part Netflix series from the Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay that revisits the case of the Central Park Five, a group of wrongly accused black and brown teens from Harlem. The five boys were falsely convicted of the rape of a white woman, Patricia Meili, in Central Park in the spring of 1989. The case ignited existing tensions in the city, drawing into sharp focus the racial bias of the citys police force, its manifestly unequal justice system, and the prejudice of New Yorks white establishment class.

The five boys were paraded in front of the media after, they say, they were intimidated by NYPD officers into falsely confessing their involvement in the assault despite no DNA evidence linking them to the scene of the crime. These videotaped confessions would later go on to secure convictions against all five boys in one of the most closely watched trials of the decade.

Michael K Williams was 22 when the incident took place, living in the neighboring borough of Brooklyn. He recalls that period with anger. I remember the fear, he says. Looking at the news I see these young boys and they resemble me. Seeing them failed, and feeling like something was not adding up.

Caleel Harris and Michael K Williams in When They See Us. Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Williams, now 52 and best known for his role as Omar Little in The Wire, plays Bobby McCray, father of Antron, one of the five boys falsely convicted. DuVernays series is something of a revisionist history, choosing to focus primarily on the story of the five boys and their families as they navigate the sharp end of the criminal justice system.

Some of the most moving sequences are the intimate moments between parent and child as the adults are forced to explain the brutal realities of policing to children of colour. None is more confronting than Bobby McCray explaining to his son he should sign a false confession in the hours after the attack due to his misplaced belief it would allow him to walk free.

Williams is familiar with such talks, as many African American families across the country are, and he says he drew on conversations he had with his own son as he performed the scenes.

Niecy Nash, who plays Delores Wise, mother to Korey, another of the five boys, nods in agreement recalling the scenes in which she is forced to comfort her son in prison. Nash, herself a mother of three , says: We definitely have to have the conversation [with my children] because, with the playing field not being level, the goal is for them to make it home alive.

Niecy Nash and Jharrel Jerome in When They See Us. Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

To hear these successful actors talk about their own conversations at home is a stark reminder that the endemic injustice on display two decades ago has not gone away. The case continues to polarize opinion in New York with many, including Donald Trump himself, still arguing the five men were responsible for the crime. This despite DNA evidence tying another man, who later confessed to his involvement, to the rape, and a decision by the city to vacate the charges against all five of the wrongly accused.

Trump took out advertisements in all the major New York daily newspapers days after the attack in 1989, calling for the five boys to be executed. It offered a portentous insight into his ability to draw on racial division for political gain, and yet another reason why revisiting the case feels so important today.

Many of the performers in DuVernays series seem reluctant to discuss Trumps continuing role in the saga. But Blair Underwood, who plays Robert Burns, a trial attorney for Yusef Salaam another of the five boys sees Trumps intervention as part of a historic trajectory.

The corollary, the overriding theme, is keeping black and brown people in their place. From the 1600s all the way through history to today, he says. Thats the underlying current of why the justice system is imbalanced. And thats why people like this man [Trump] could make comments like that.

For others, being involved in a project exploring such direct themes was a reminder of their own privilege growing up.

Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Joshua Jackson, who plays Mickey Joseph, Antron McCrays defense attorney, is perhaps best known for his role as Pacey Witter in Dawsons Creek. As a young man, Jackson too came into contact with the criminal justice system when he was charged with assault and intoxication in North Carolina back in 2002. The charges were eventually dropped.

Im constantly trying to learn, I guess, as I get older, or through my entire life, what is my place of privilege, right? To examine the undue benefits that life has given me just based on the virtue of the colour of my skin, and the accident of my birth in North America, he says, adding later: So this [the series] is a part of that for me, that continual process of learning.

None of the actors playing DuVernays five young protagonists were alive in 1989. But each was able to spend time with the men whose stories they were now telling. Although the prosecution of the Central Park Five was well covered by media at the time, accounts of what happened afterwards their extended periods of incarceration have been confined to scant interviews after their release.

DuVernay devotes almost half the series to this period in the mens lives, with one entire episode focusing on the eldest of the boys, Korey Wise, and his time inside adult prison from the age of just 16.

Wise is played by 21-year-old Jharrel Jerome, one of the young stars of Barry Jenkins Oscar-winning drama Moonlight. He recalls his time with Wise before filming began. He [Wise] loves talking about anything but his experience, Jerome says. And that really taught me about his experience in a lot of ways.

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