Netflix closed its Emmy FYSEE space on Sunday, June 9, with an emotionally charged screening of Ava DuVernay‘s limited series “When They See Us.” The event, hosted by executive producer Oprah Winfrey, included a Q&A with DuVernay, the cast and producers, followed by a separate interview with the Exonerated Five, whose devastating life stories formed the basis of the show. The discussion, which took place at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, will air in its entirety on Netflix and on Winfrey’s OWN Network on June 12. Watch a clip above.
“When They See Us” recounts the true story of Antron McCray, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam. In 1989, when they were teenagers, they were wrongfully convicted of raping a white jogger in New York City and spent years in prison and as registered sex offenders before their sentences were vacated in 2002 when the actual perpetrator came forward.
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Following a screening of the first episode, Winfrey welcomed writer/director DuVernay and filled the stage with a slew of others for a panel discussion. That included executive producers Jane Rosenthal, Berry Welsh and Jonathan King. They were joined by the young actors who play the persecuted teenagers: Asante Blackk, Marquis Rodriquez, Caleel Harris and Ethan Harisse. Their adult counterparts were there as well: Jovan Adepo, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares and Justin Cunningham.
Jharrel Jerome was also on hand; he stars as Korey Wise and is the only actor to play his role as both a teenager and an adult. His on-screen mother Niecy Nash was right there with him. So were Michael Kenneth Williams, who plays McCray’s father Bobby, and Joshua Jackson, who appears in the series as defense attorney Mickey Joseph.
“The goal was to create something that would stick to your ribs and that wasn’t junk food,” DuVernay explained, “to create something that was going to be a catalyst for conversation. Entertainment serves all kinds of different purposes, but to be able to create something with my collaborators that’s actually going to move people to action, move people to evaluate what they think and how they behave in the world, was our goal.”
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The tears started flowing when the real McCray, Wise, Richardson, Santana, and Salaam took the stage to talk about the harrowing experiences documented in the series. At one point Winfrey asked the exonerated men, “What do you want to say about this cycle” of injustice and racism “that you now have been a huge part of?”
“Here we are, 30 years later, and not too many things have changed,” Richardson lamented. Reflecting on our nation’s age-old history of racial discrimination and criminal injustice, he compared their case to the Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American teenagers who were falsely accused of raping a white woman on a train in 1931. “It’s all the same thing. So I’m happy and ecstatic that we can start the conversation now, and then make sure there will never be another Central Park Five.”
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