Hundreds flocked to Raleigh Studios Sunday night to attend the Netflix FYSee Emmy consideration event for When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s powerful new limited series detailing how five Black and brown children were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for the rape of the woman known as the Central Park Jogger in 1989. After a screening of the first episode of the four-part series, When They See Us, which details how the young boys were violently coerced into confessing to the crime, Executive Producer Oprah Winfrey took the stage with most of the main cast of the series and DuVernay, followed by the real men that the series portrays–Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Antron McCray–The Exonerated Five.
In interviews that will air on OWN and Netflix on Wednesday, June 12, Winfrey explored with the cast and the real men how the series has impacted their lives.
Niecy Nash, who plays Delores Wise, the mother of Korey Wise, shared that the series changed her life and that she’s joined the real-life Korey’s Innocence Project, which helps wrongfully convicted people like Wise regain their freedom through the legal system. For McCray, whose mother passed away just before the series premiered, watching the series “brought back a lot of pain,” he shared with Winfrey, and it did not provide him with a sense of healing. “I’m broken,” he said. Still, all of the men expressed their gratitude to DuVernay for telling their story in a powerful way that will impact the way other people live their lives, as well.
When Winfrey asked whether the men blamed Linda Fairstein, the former head of the sex crimes division at the New York District Attorney’s office for the investigation and prosecution, all of the men agreed, despite Fairstein’s rant in the Wall Street Journal opinion section that called the series “a basket of lies.” While they all expressed gratitude that Fairstein is being held accountable–she’s been dropped by her book publisher, has had many of her awards rescinded and has resigned from many boards of directors–DuVernay believes there is much more work to be done:
“I think that it’s important that people be held accountable,” she said. “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.”
While there were tears and evident deep pain still present in the men now known as The Exonerated Five (read Shadow And Act’s interview with Wise, Salaam and Santana here), the most beautiful moments of the evening happened after the cameras stopped rolling. The men held hands and raised their arms in victory, to a standing ovation–just as their counterparts did at the end of When They See Us. At the reception that followed, fans eagerly waited to speak to Wise, Salaam, Richardson, McCray and Santana. The men seemed buoyed by the love of the crowd, shaking hands, signing autographs, taking selfies.
One especially touching moment occurred when a young woman broke down crying at the sight of Wise. Of the five, Wise’s turmoil, as shown in episode four of When They See Us, was particularly brutal, as he languished in adult prison from the age of 16, when the others were sent to juvenile prisons and served half the time that Wise did. Wise went underneath the rope that separated the men and the cast from the audience, to give the young woman a hug. “I’m all right,” he comforted her.
The men also embraced each other, laughing and joking together throughout the evening. When the DJ played the unofficial Black Anthem by Frankie Beverly and Maze, “Before I Let Go,” the men were arm and arm, singing along to the chorus at the top of their lungs, to cheers from their supporters. The pain isn’t gone; there’s much healing that needs to take place, and much more work for everyone to do. But in those few hours of celebration, the most palpable emotion was pure joy.
But y’all, Y’ALL. My absolute favorite part of the #WhenTheySeeUs #WhenTheySeeUsNow evening was watching #TheExoneratedFive sing along to the unofficial Black National Anthem #BeforeILetGo. The JOY jumped out ???? They deserve all the joy in the world ✊???????? pic.twitter.com/FiIlQGf1MS
— HOT GIRL BROOKE (@BrookeObie) June 13, 2019
Watch the Oprah Winfrey ‘When They See Us’ special interview on OWN and Netflix.