Filmmaker Ava DuVernay says she receives a couple dozen tweets a day from people asking her to make a movie from their life story. But this #wishfulthinking tweet from Raymond Santana caught her eye:
Santana was one of five teens arrested for the 1989 assault and rape of a white woman in New York's Central Park. The boys were pressured into false confessions and convicted. All served time. A murderer who was already serving a life sentence later confessed to the rape.
DuVernay remembers when it all happened: "I was a teenager on the West Coast when they were teenagers on the East Coast. ... It meant a lot to be asked by them," she says.
Her Netflix miniseries When They See Us will be released Friday. A 2012 documentary called The Central Park Five also explores the wrongful conviction, but DuVernay says "there was more story to tell."
"It was expansive to me," she says. "It was a famous case that allowed me to interrogate all the different parts of the criminal justice system." She sees this miniseries as a "companion piece" to her documentary 13th, which draws a line between slavery and mass incarceration.
Though DuVernay explores the larger criminal justice system, When They See Us also zooms in to show how incarceration fractures individual families.
"When you incarcerate one person, you're incarcerating their family, their future, their community," DuVernay says. "In the large numbers that we're incarcerating people, you're incarcerating a generation of people. ... It's something that we need to look at with knowledge of what it is — not just look at and say 'It's a shame.' "
On the grief of losing a family member to incarceration
Many of us, most of us, have lost someone in our life, and we know what that feels like, you know, at the moment of the loss, the first week, the first month, the first year of the loss, and two years and three years — and it starts to change. It's always there, but it starts to change as time goes on because there becomes a distance from the presence of that person — the physical presence of that person — in your life. So it's this idea of separation, but a presence that never allows the grief to change into anything else — except, you know, a deep absence that is inescapable.
On portraying how scared the boys were
You have a lot of people saying, 'Well, how could you say something that wasn't true?' Well, OK, I'm a black or brown kid in a closed room with white men who are authority figures who have guns on their belts and badges and who are terrifying. ... They were scared. ... Lies were told, and they did what they thought they needed to do to get them out of the room, not knowing enough about their rights to know that what they were doing was ... putting them in a cell. ... [The] camera movement and framing and composition — all of that was to bring you into the heartbeat of the boys as their adrenaline starts to rush from the terror of where they were.
On whether New York City or the prosecution have acknowledged wrongdoing
The city never apologized; they settled. No one on the side of the prosecution ever apologized. They've stuck by the fact that even though the real man came out and said: I did it, I did it alone. Even though all of that physical evidence was from him, was matched to the victim, and it was in fact him, and only him, these people still refuse to acknowledge that they — not made a mistake — lied. Lied.
On whether she sets out to "change minds"
My goal was to tell the stories of the men and certainly to illuminate larger injustices within the system. ... But my purpose is not to change anyone's mind. ... I want to honor the men, honor their experience. I want to show black and brown people themselves within the system being fully human. The goal of my work is not to ... try to convince anyone of anything, but to honor what is.
On screening the film with the Central Park Five
I had the honor of sitting behind them as they watched the film. ... We'd worked on this together. I worked very closely with them on it for four years. To sit behind them and watch them watch themselves, and watch each other, in this five-hour epic saga ... about injustice that had been perpetrated upon them was deeply emotional for them, deeply emotional for me. ... [It was] just a very intimate, personal, emotional moment that I think outweighs anything that I've experienced as a filmmaker up until this point. ... I don't quite know what can top it. My goal was to tell their stories — and to get the 'well done' from them, with tears in their eyes, was everything I need.
On whether the men are at peace
No amount of money can bring back your childhood, your youth, your family structure that's been lost or irreparably damaged. ... Everything's been affected by this. ... There's so much you can't get back. So, no, I think they're far from peace.
NPR reached out to former prosecutor Linda Fairstein, who is portrayed by Felicity Huffman in When They See Us, for comment.
She told NPR her attorneys sent documents and videos related to the investigation to the series producers, and that she would only agree to speak with them after they had reviewed the materials. Fairstein said she never heard back from producers after that.
She also called the depiction of her in the series "grossly" inaccurate and said the film is a "fictional dramatization of events."
Victoria Whitley-Berry and Ashley Brown produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
How does someone become an adult after being robbed of a childhood? A new Netflix miniseries examines this question. It's based on the case of a group of black and Latino teenagers known as the Central Park Five. In April 1989, a woman was brutally beaten and raped in New York's Central Park. Five boys were pressured into false confessions and convicted. All served time.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHEN THEY SEE US")
FREDDY MIYARES: (As Raymond Santana) And everything was going on. I couldn't really follow what was happening. I didn't get it. Inside, I started reading the articles - how they wrote them against us from the first days, all the transcripts, the straight-up lies they told. I watched my tape. I don't even know who that [expletive] kid is. I don't even recognize myself.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I know, Ray.
MARTIN: That's Freddy Miyares, the actor who plays Raymond Santana, one of the five. The real Raymond Santana reached out on Twitter to the director and screenwriter Ava DuVernay, and he asked if she would tell the story of what he, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise went through. DuVernay said yes. She talked with our co-host Noel King about how this project got started.
AVA DUVERNAY: I get a lot of tweets. It happened on Twitter. It was shortly after Selma, and I got a tweet from Raymond Santana asking, what would be my next film after Selma? - Central Park Five.
And this story is one that I knew. I was a teenager on the West Coast when they were teenagers on the East Coast, so I remember it being in the news. I'd recently seen the documentary by Sarah Burns, so I paid attention to the tweet this time. And it meant a lot to be asked by them.
NOEL KING, BYLINE: When you sat down to talk to these men for the first time, what were some of the things they told you that made you think, oh, there's so much more here than we know?
DUVERNAY: Well, the personal stories for Antron McCray, for example, whose family dynamic completely broke apart. He was a part of a gorgeous small family unit - his mother, his father and himself living in Harlem. And on this particular night when he's brought in, his father is in the room with him. And his father is kind of blackmailed and pushed and coerced into forcing his son to confess...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHEN THEY SEE US")
MICHAEL KENNETH WILLIAMS: (As Bobby McCray) Listen to me, 'Tron. I need you to do what the police want you to do. You got to say what they want you to say.
CALEEL HARRIS: (As Young Antron McCray) They want me to lie.
WILLIAMS: (As Bobby McCray) No, don't think of it like that. Just say what they want you to say.
DUVERNAY: ...Which the son does after much protest. And from there, their relationship was never the same. The story is so poignant, but it's also so telling in terms of the fracturing of family that happens when, you know, one person is incarcerated.
KING: Well, that part really comes through. I kept thinking as I was watching the movie, the whole family might as well be behind bars.
DUVERNAY: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think the best thing to liken it to for people that don't have anyone who's incarcerated is grief. You know, most of us have lost someone in our life, and we know what that feels like. So it's this idea of separation but a presence that never allows the grief to change into anything else except a deep absence that is inescapable.
KING: Your series is very blunt in its portrayal of police and prosecutors. These teenage boys - at this point, they're boys. They're brought into interrogation. They are told, you'll get out of trouble if you confess. You show their faces very close up. And I wonder, was getting in that close - was that a choice to show us, to remind us that these were kids?
DUVERNAY: Well, yeah. I mean, every decision in the film was a choice as a director. But I think the proximity of the camera to the subject was less about showing that they were kids and mostly about showing that they were terrified.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHEN THEY SEE US")
ASANTE BLACKK: (As Kevin Richardson) Please just sign it, please.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Angie, just because you waive an attorney right now, it doesn't mean it's forever. Right?
KYLIE BUNBURY: (As Angie Richardson) I don't even...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You get your brother home, you and your mother. Figure things out with a lawyer. We'll clear this...
BLACKK: (As Kevin Richardson) I don't want to stay.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) ...All up.
BLACKK: (As Kevin Richardson) Angie, I don't want to stay here anymore. I'm tired of being here. I don't want to be here anymore.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I don't think...
BLACKK: (As Kevin Richardson) Please sign it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We don't want to be here doing this, OK?
BLACKK: (As Kevin Richardson) I don't want to be here. I want to go home.
DUVERNAY: OK. I'm a black or brown kid in a closed room with white men who are authority figures, who have guns on their belts and badges. And so, yeah, the proximity to the camera and the choices in camera movement and framing and composition - all of that - was to bring you into the heartbeat of the boys as they - their adrenaline starts to rush from the terror of where they were.
KING: As recently as late November 2018, Linda Fairstein, who was the sex crimes prosecutor - in the film, she's played by Felicity Huffman. She was insisting that her office did nothing wrong. And I wonder, while you were researching this film, while you were doing interviews, did you have an opportunity to talk to anyone involved in the investigation or the prosecution?
DUVERNAY: We made the opportunity available to them to speak with me, and many refused. Some did speak to me and asked that it not be revealed that they did. But the character that you're speaking of - her real-life counterpart refused to speak to me, yeah.
KING: I know that you saw the film with some of the men. What did they think? How did they react when they saw this dramatization of their lives on screen?
DUVERNAY: A lot of tears, a lot of relief on their part, I think, feeling that their story was finally going to be told and seen and heard and just a very intimate, personal, emotional moment that, I think, outweighs anything that I've experienced as a filmmaker up until this point. My goal was to tell their stories. And to, you know, get the well done from them with tears in their eyes was everything I need.
KING: Do you think that these men are at peace with what happened?
DUVERNAY: No. No, they're not at peace. No amount of money can bring back your childhood. Everything's been affected by this. Many people in this - that I've come across across the country over the past four years don't know how the story ends. Just think Central Park Five - actually think they're just still incarcerated or that they got out but they did it. Not everyone knows about the exoneration. There's so much you can't get back. So...
DUVERNAY: No, I think they're far from peace. But I do hope there's satisfaction for them in at least being able to finally have their side of the story heard and seen.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLEVER AUSTIN'S "SPECKLE, PT.2")
MARTIN: That's filmmaker Ava DuVernay speaking with Noel King about her new Netflix series "When They See Us." We should say Netflix is one of NPR's sponsors.
We also reached out to former prosecutor Linda Fairstein for comment. She told us her attorney sent documents and videos related to the investigation to the series' producers and that she would only agree to speak with them after they had reviewed the materials. Fairstein said she never heard back from producers after that. She also called the depiction of her in the series grossly inaccurate and said the film is a, quote, "fictional dramatization of events." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.