Ava DuVernay's "When They See Us" is a game-changer in story telling and a clinic on controlling the narrative. The series is now available on Netflix.
"It’s more than anger. It’s hatred, and I want society to hate them.” - Donald Trump
(AllHipHop Features) Allow me to selfishly tell a personal story, as we cannonball into a conversation about the Central Park 5.
Once upon a time, my younger brother Jay was accosted by the police in Newark, Delaware. He was a young, Black teenager minding his business at a 7-11 getting a Slurpee with his friend Greg Watkins (later known as Grouchy Greg, co-founder of AllHipHop.com). But he “fit the description” to an officer on the prowl looking for a person that beat up and robbed a man at an ATM. Before he had a chance to do anything substantial like speak to our mother or call for a lawyer, my brother was in cuffs. He was 16 years old.
Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise were aged 14-16 when their lives were railroaded and the Central Park 5 were born. Their horrendous saga began over 30 years ago - April 19, 1989, to be exact - in New York City when they were all accused of the vicious beating and rape of 28-year old Trisha Meili who was jogging in the famous Central Park that fateful day. “When They See Us,” the explosive scripted docu-series directed and led by creative magistrate Ava DuVernay, examines how these young men and their families were brutalized, assaulted and completely victimized by the judicial system.
Ultimately, all five boys confessed to the savage rape of Meili. But that does not tell the whole story.
In their maniacal, misguided push for justice, the police arrested a total of seven kids, but only Santana, Richardson, McCray, Salaam and Wise confessed to the crime. ”When we were arrested, the police deprived us of food, drink or sleep for more than 24 hours,” said Yusef Salaam to The Washington Post in 2016, “Under duress, we falsely confessed.” Not only was there no DNA evidence to support the prosecution’s theories, but the boys “confessions” were also wildly inconsistent when the boys went to trial. “When They See Us” even shows how some of the parents were manipulated. It simply didn’t add up and yet, the teens were convicted nonetheless.
Rape victim Trisha Meili didn’t help convict or exonerate the boys, because she suffered extreme trauma and memory loss. However, the media and racists like Donald Trump were guilty of swaying the perception of the case. Trump, then just a narcissistic real estate developer, called for the death penalty of all the teenagers in a full-page newspaper “ad.” The papers were riddled with racist notions of Black kids “wilding” in “wolf packs” like animals, which fed the public a heaping of fear. The prosecution was able to leverage the mania in the city to convict five innocent teens even though everything outside of their maligned, oftentimes nonsensical confessions said otherwise.
“When They See Us,” which debuts on Netflix May 31, goes beyond racist power moves and sensational headlines in black and white. Directed by Ava DuVernay, the series delves into the humanity, disparities in power and perception and leads viewers through the redemption of the Central Park 5 as well. “It's difficult to watch, but when you watch, it’s inspirational,” said Blair Underwood, who plays a lawyer defending the teens.
Actor Dascha Polanco said, “We need to know that these situations are still happening. We need to educate ourselves, we need to know our rights. If we don’t know, then these things are going to continue to happen. We need to know that for the color of our skin…we always going to have a different kind of treatment. So, therefore, what’s our power? Our power is our minds…information.”
Way back when in the early 90’s, after the Central Park 5 were convicted and serving hard time for a crime they didn’t do, my brother was under the gun, so to speak. He just finished working his part-time gig at Toy R Us on that fateful day where the officers accused him of attacking and robbing a man. He told them he could verify his whereabouts. At the same time, superfluous reinforcements pulled up at the 7-11 in the form of four other police officers. “I wasn’t talking back, but they got real nasty,” my brother told me. “‘Shut, just shut up,’ they said. They tore my car up and they basically messed it all up. I didn’t even fit the description. I looked like a middle school student and the dude (alleged perpetrator) was like 25.” Nevertheless, the cops informed my brother that he definitely “fit the description" took him straight to the hospital where the victim was to wrap this whole case up quickly. Before departing, he told Greg to call my mother and let her know what was going on.
Mindless loathing and ignorance are easy. I can only imagine the addiction of hatred, because so many people do it, so much, so easily. I recently hit the red carpet to talk to the actors and various creatives that poured their heart, nerve, and sinew into this project.
The red carpet and subsequent screening of “When They See Us” at The Apollo in Harlem yielded guests like included Reverend Al Sharpton, Oprah Winfrey, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson (Lawyer, Peter Rivera), John Leguizamo (Raymond Santana, Sr.), Niecy Nash (Delores Wise), Michael K. Williams (Bobby McCray), Marsha S. Blake (Linda McCray), Caleel Harris (Antron McCray, young), Asante Blackk (Kevin Richardson, young), Marquis Rodriguez (Raymond Santanna, Jr., young), Jharrel Jerome (Korey Wise), Ethan Herisse (Yusef Salaam, young), Chris Chalk (Yuself Salaam, adult), Justin Cummingham (Kevin Richardson, adult), Freddy Miyares (Raymond Santana Jr, adult) and many more.
The biggest, brightest stars of the event were the actual Central Park 5: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Jr. and Yusef Salaam. They are now known as the Exonerated Five. Inside the Apollo, Ultimately - after years in prison - the real rapist confessed to the crime. The five men were awarded $41 million from the city of New York in 2014 after they sued for emotional distress. Their convictions were vacated. The city never admitted to any wrongdoing, but “When They See Us” is a fierce trial by fire that sets the record straight.
But, are we really good?
The police pulled up to Christian Hospital in Delaware with my 16-year old brother cuffed and in the back of the cop car. They then had the man come out of the hospital. When they rolled the windows down, revealing my brother, the victim said, “That’s not him.” The officers then attempted to convince the man that my brother was the person that attacked and robbed him. The man was resolute and didn’t bend to their will. “If that dude would have said that was him, I would have been in jail. Mom would have had to get a lawyer and I would have had to fight for my life. It’s guilty before innocent and they go backward from there.” By the time it was over, my mother was at the 7-11 waiting. After the fact, the cops were like:” Mistakes happen.” She eventually retained a lawyer, but nothing really came of it. The life of a young Black man went on, but the experience looms.
To this day, President Trump maintains that the Exonerated Five raped Trisha Meili and so do his constituents like Kellyanne Conway, who continue to promote their “fake news.” “This story is about the multitude of victims that got affected and her not being the only one,” said Alexandra Templer, who plays Trisha Meili. The whole city of New York became a proverbial lynch mob when it was time to convict Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise, five Black and Brown teenagers. This case is extreme. Other cases, like my brother Jay, are not. All of these situations are acts of racism and abuses of power that can destroy lives. Fortunately, people like Ava DuVernay are seizing control of the narrative and, in some ways, righting wrongs.
Blair Underwood concluded, “Man, I love to entertain, I love to do fun things and that’s important to do. But when you can say something that’s affecting people’s lives…this story about the Central Park 5, better known as the Exonerated 5, to see what they went through, to see the journey they have had, that they have come on the other side and survived it….that’s life-changing.”
Chuck Creekmur is the co-founder of AllHipHop.com and can be found on all social outlets at @ChuckCreekmur.