Nearly three decades after their wrongful rape convictions and subsequent years of imprisonment, the Central Park Five’s story is told in Ava DuVernay’s sweeping new limited series, When They See Us, launching Friday on Netflix. The creator, 46, shared its long road to the screen — and what making it taught her about criminal justice, Donald Trump, and (maybe) giving her soul a break.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Sarah and Ken Burns made a 2012 documentary on the case, but there’s still so many people who don’t really know the details of what happened to these guys. What was it specifically that brought you on board?
AVA DuVERNAY: I remember from being a kid a junior in high school when it happened, but I was actually invited by Raymond Santana, one of the Five, to tell their story. I didn’t know him but I followed the Central Park Five [Twitter] account, and he tweeted me and asked “What’s gonna be your next film after Selma — CP5?” with question marks, and so I DMed him back and said “Does no one have your story?” And he said no, so I said “Well, I’ll be in New York in a few months, maybe we’ll get together,” not thinking much of it, but he continued to follow up.
It all just seemed to come together in an organic way — before I knew it I was speaking to all of the Five and their families and then I delved into research. For me, it’s the first time any project has really come together in that way. 13th was one where Netflix came to me and said, “Make a documentary about anything you want!” This one was really an invitation from the people involved, and that really moved me.
Having done 13th, which explored the cause and effect of mass incarceration, did this feel like a companion piece in any way, or maybe another side of the coin?
For sure. I think for me this is 13th in narrative form. The way that I’ve designed the piece certainly, it’s about the case of the Central Park jogger, but on top of that — or actually underneath that — is a deep dive into the different phases of the criminal-justice experience. So the first part is all about police interaction, precinct behavior, bail. The second part is about court and plea trial and the ways in which we’re processed through the legal system, the third part is about juvenile detention and post incarceration, how formerly incarcerated people are treated in this country, and the fourth part is about incarceration itself.
That’s very much in line with some of the major parts of what 13th is about, but this is just with character and story that’s dynamic in a way that I hope people come out of it and go, “Wow, this is a system that we’re ensnared in,” whether you’re in prison, or know anyone in prison, or whether you’re just buying shirts made by prison labor or thinking that a guy on the street is a criminal because he looks like one, based on what you think a criminal looks like. It’s asking us to engage and really think about all of our assumptions.
Altogether, it ends up being about five hours long. Did you just realize as you worked that it needed more than maybe a regular movie length?
The great thing about working with Netflix is that they really don’t have a lot of allegiance to time, so I had originally on my own thought that this was going to be a feature film, and as I delved into the story and researched it for four years and looked at those court transcripts did all the research of the press coverage and talked to all these families and heard their stories, I thought, “Oh gosh, this is a series.” A project tells you what it wants to be, right?
As a CBS News intern in Los Angeles, you helped covered the O.J. Simpson trial. Did watching that intersection of race and crime and all these sort of tabloid-circus aspects firsthand carry over to this at all?
What the O.J. experience taught me as a young intern is to go further. News is not the end-all be-all. News is the invitation to ask the next question. Which is not to say that it’s fake news — it’s to say that we as Americans don’t consume news with as much rigor as we should, and as we can. News is basically making you aware of something, but there’s a point in that awareness where it’s up for us to say, “Now that I’m aware, what do I believe about it? What I do think?”
A lot of your older cast members — Felicity Huffman, Blair Underwood, Niecy Nash — must have had memories of the case, especially native New Yorkers like John Leguizamo and Michael K. Williams. Did you discuss that much on set?
Oh yeah quite a few. It was a huge cast, 117 people, and a lot of them would talk about their recollection of this event at the time how it affected them across a wide social strata across gender lines and race lines. White women were told to fear the park, the whole “Clutch your purse and watch your step when you’re passing a person of color.” It also got people of color thinking about their own behavior and how they were trafficking in respectability politics, that they had to act a certain way so as not to be threatening. So you know, there’s a lot of layers to this, and I was fortunate to be able to shoot in New York City and get a lot of peoples’ perspective.
All but one of the boys were just 14 or 15 at the time they were accused in 1989. Was it hard to put your young actors playing them through some of the more brutal scenes? Asante Blackk, who plays Kevin Richardson, looks like such a baby in his scenes!
Asante, that was his first role — I plucked him out of a school play in Baltimore, and he did extraordinary work. My goal was just to make sure the boys were very well-educated about the case. They all met their real counterparts, and they knew they were there to portray these folks so that we can get truth for an injustice. They were also all young black men, boys, portraying others that are like them and they were speaking for them. It really felt like it meant something to them, so the hard parts didn’t feel so tough. One of the boys told me, “I’m just pretending like it happened, but it really happened to them, so I’ve got the easy part of it.”
There’s this really sort of heartbreaking moment where one of the kids says, “When they talk about ‘boys will be boys,’ they’re not talking about us.” Which made me think of how we tend to speak about the teenage years of someone like, say, Brett Kavanaugh versus Tamir Rice.
Yes! It’s exactly what you just said. It really is who do we consider, who do allow to be exuberant, to be boys, to maybe have a little bit of bad behavior? To say, “Ah, they’re just kids?” That never seems to be what we allow for black and brown kids. So that was a big part of what we wanted to do here. But I also think about how much progress has been made, slowly but surely, and I think film figures into that. It may not shift policy and politics, but there is this power to change someone’s mind, you know? Look at Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, how much that changed how we feel about the LGBT community, and HIV/AIDS, you know? Look at the trans community, how much our views and nation has changed in the last five years.
There’s something about storytelling. I believe in that power, whether it’s 13th or Middle of Nowhere or When they See Us, that folks start to shift what they think about the criminal justice system. They’ll start to ask questions when they hear that next news report — they’ll ask what part they play in that system, because our complacency is a part of it, and through that we’re complicit.
As a private citizen, Donald Trump famously took out ads in all the major New York dailies calling for the execution of the Five before their convictions. Did you make a conscious choice not to feature him as a character?
Yeah, there’s a world in which there’s an actual actor playing Donald Trump — I mean, we could have gone that route. And you know, it wasn’t even a matter of restraint, it was if I’m being true to this being the mens’ story, he did not figure into their story prominently when they were 14, 15-year-old boys in juvenile hall. He figured into their parents‘ story. They were concerned. But the boys themselves just thought he was like, this rich guy who owned the gold buildings in New York. They really weren’t listening to him in that way.
Now we know the emotional violence that it caused his parents, who were listening and were feeling the trauma of having the death of their son being called for. But when I asked the men, “How much did that figure into what you were thinking about at that time?” [It was] very little. They were focused on just getting through their day to day.
You have a lot on your IMDb page right now, including a Prince documentary, DC’s New Gods, and a TV movie about a legendary 1973 fashion show. Were you maybe looking to maybe lighten up your soul a little bit after all this?
[Laughs] Well that’s sort of what A Wrinkle in Time was after Selma and 13th and Middle of Nowhere — letting a little black girl fly and experience love and the universe, which was kind of a great two-year break. And during the same time I was still kind of keeping my eye on and working on When They See Us.
But yeah, I got a lot brewing. All those projects that you name are in the process, and more — I always like to keep some surprises up my sleeve. I’m just trying to work on things that resonate with me and just make my heart beat a little bit faster. So if that’s something about injustice or that’s something more beautiful, if it’s got my attention.