Ava DuVernay's highly-anticipated limited series on The Central Park Jogger case from Ava DuVernay arrives on Netflix this Friday. The powerful series spotlights the case and what it did to the five young men at the center of it.
Along with the young actors who portray the Exonerated Five, Shadow And Act spoke with series creator, director and co-writer DuVernay and actors Niecy Nash, Michael K. Williams and Marsha Stephanie Blake (who play parents of the accused -- Delores Wise, Bobby McCray and Linda McCray) and Blair Underwood and Joshua Jackson (who play members of the defense team) ahead of the series premiere at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
What was the research process like for this project? Was there anything that you learned about the case and the young men involved that you didn't know before?
Ava DuVernay: We worked on this piece for four years. It started in 2015, when one of the men (Raymond Santana) tweeted me, asking if I would consider making their story. I get tweets a lot, everyone thinks their life is fascinating. But I was familiar with this case being a teenager on the West Coast at the same time this was happening on the East Coast. [I] really delved into it with a great sense of responsibility, once I accepted the project and they accepted me. The research was very muscular. We looked at all the court transcripts, we looked at files that were slipped to us, that we weren’t supposed to have, by people off-the-record. We talked to everyone who could that lived in the city at the time. We looked at all the press coverage, all the court transcripts, [but] the main thing was talking to the men over the course of the four years. Many conversations, many meetings, many all-day sessions on the couch, just asking them questions about their life [and] getting the nuance of their stories. It was a big research project and a big writing project -- and I’m really proud of it.
Blair Underwood: I could hold forth about forty minutes talking about the genius of Ava DuVernay. She gave us such a file of research, videotapes of our characters, news articles...a lot of that work was handed to us. My character was Bobby Burns, who represented Yusef Salaam. Bobby Burns is no longer alive, so my point of contact was Yusef himself. And he was very generous with giving me info on his life -- his mother was very much involved, of course, and their relationship at the time.
Michael K. Willams: I didn’t know that they held these kids for so long and interrogated them without any adult supervision in the room, no lawyers, no family members. All we had to go on was what the media was telling us at the time. “They pled guilty, they're animals.” I knew what wilding was in NYC...these scars on my face are a result of being wilded on. So that’s what we had to go on. Then, I read the narrative and I get the scripts and I [was like] see what really happened. And it was horrendous.
Marsha Stephanie Blake: I never actually knew that Korey was not in the park when the incident occurred. It was very surprising that I was just finding out 30 years later that this kid wasn’t even present. And only because I read the court documents and 800-something pages of transcripts, and I thought, “Oh my God, he wasn’t even there at the time.”
Niecy Nash: I would say that I had knowledge of the case, but [it was] being able to actually meet the real men who this affected. And I play Delores Wise, who is Korey’s mother, and I had the opportunity to speak with her on the phone, which helped a lot. And you try to uncover as much video as you can and as and documentation as you can and then, if you’re lucky, you get to have a conversation and or interaction with some of the real people who were affected by all of it.
We're in a time right now where many people believe that, whether it's in the news or in the form scripted or unscripted entertainment projects, Black pain is too huge of a focus in the media. What would you say to anyone who may be hesitant to watch the series because of that?
Ava DuVernay: It’s about Black pain, but it’s also about Black triumph. That’s the story of our history. If you don’t want to watch it, it’s good, fine with me. But I think running away from our history, running away from the realities of what so many of our brothers and sisters are going through and saying, “That’s too painful. I don’t want to watch it,” I think, is challenging. Yes, we need to practice self-care in all places that it’s necessary for you. But I think sometimes we need to ask ourselves: “Are we being lazy? Are we not looking at the things we should look at because it doesn’t feel good?” And I'm not saying it in a way where it’s trauma porn, but do it with material that’s moving you forward in your thought process and your interrogation and your behavior around the criminal justice system. When you watch this with young Black and Brown people, you teach them about their rights. You move us forward. You make sure you know this story so it can’t repeat itself. I think there is a debate to be had there, but for forward-thinking people, who are able to watch this in a place of health and progress, it is important for us to know our history and this is a part of it.
Underwood: It’s necessary. When it’s in the hand of someone who is an artist and storyteller like Ava, it makes a difference. It’s one thing to tell a story, but what’s most important is who is telling the story and from what perspective. So no hesitation...I’m always chomping at the bit to tell stories, especially from the African-American perspective. I was like, “When do we start shooting? Let’s go!"
Joshua Jackson: Being a white person inside of this...talking about the exploitation of Black pain as a trope...part of what I think is so powerful in this is that I don’t know if you need to be Black, Brown, white or whatever...if you can’t experience the pain of these children and what they go through and you are not moved by the damage that is done to these families, the power of these mothers and fathers as they try to navigate this monolithic bad that is being done to them -- it can’t be argued with, it can’t be negotiated with, it is this weight that is being dropped upon them. They each try to navigate it in their own way and it destroys them each in their own way. The guilt and the pain...if that doesn’t move you as a human, beyond the color of your skin, something is deeply, deeply disconnected inside of you. [To someone hesitant to watch], I hear what you’re saying, and that’s something that I can’t touch as a white man, it is a particular space that you feel it, but as a white person to watch that show, the emotional resonance of it, it hits. It is very, very real, and in the hands of a master like Ava, it is not a trope, it is not an emotional manipulation, it is her bringing you into it and masterfully telling you this story.
Nash: I would lead with, “You gotta walk in the truth.” And that is the climate and culture we’re living in right now...and this happened in 1989. But if someone told you it happened today, you would not be surprised. You wouldn’t bat an eye. And I also think this story has been told by the media, and now you get an opportunity to see it from the inside. We’re looking at the lens from the young men’s perspective of what they experience and what their families experienced -- and that’s a different narrative.
Williams: Dare I say, it’s an American story. This happened. This didn't just happen in my community. This happened in America. And we need to own it as a nation and a community.
Blake: And I would hesitate to call it exploitation if it's being told by the actual people to who it happened.
When They See Us is now streaming on Netflix.