I cannot recall how many times I was moved to tears as I watched Ava Duvernay’s series When They See Us. At times just a few tears, other times openly weeping as I watched the pain of five teenagers as they journeyed through the severe consequences of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time one fateful evening in 1989.
Commonly referred to as the “Central Park Five,” Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise each spent between 6 and 14 years in prison after being wrongly convicted for the brutal attack of a jogger in Central Park. Their convictions were vacated in 2002 when the true offender, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime.
Duvernay retells their story in a captivating way that she proudly describes as a “catalyst for conversation [to] move people to action and to evaluate what they think and how they act in the world.” Since its release on May 31st, it has been the most watched series on Netflix every day.
Oprah Winfrey recently sat down with Duvernay and the cast of When They See Us, as well as Yusef, Kevin, Antron, Raymond and Korey—who she’s now dubbed the “Exonerated Five,” in hopes to shed their “Central Park Five” title—in a new special on Netflix. In her conversation, we learn about their journey to redemption, how they’ve transcended their pain and what gives them hope today.
They are more than pain and sorrow
“They could come out bitter at the world, but they came out smiling.” —Assante Black, who portrays the young Kevin Richardson
When Korey Wise hung out with Jharrel Jerome (who portrays Wise in the film) for the first time, he insisted on buying him a pair of sneakers. Ava describes Kevin Richardson as a big teddy bear. Raymond Santana sat on stage with a smile on his face wearing a t-shirt from his apparel company, Park Madison NYC. Yusef Salaam is a published author and public speaker who has been honored by President Barack Obama. Antron McCray is happily married living with his family in Atlanta. Between the five of them, four of them are married, and they have a combined 19 children.
These are not the qualities that you would believe to characterize people who have gone through such trauma as these men did. It seems unbelievable that they could achieve such strength despite their pain. It’s a testament to the fact that they are more than their pain and sorrow. We immediately look at them with sadness and often forget to admire their resilience to survive their circumstances and defy the odds they were given.
However, they still have invisible scars that cannot be erased
“When I heard the verdict, I went numb. I lost my religion. I started hating everything in the world.” —Antron McCray
Among the five, you could feel the pain from McCray the most as he spoke to Winfrey about his experience. The audience was brought to tears as he spoke through that pain and anger, admitting that he’s broken and damaged in a way that may not be able to be fixed. Thankfully, he’s surrounded by an entourage of strength. His wife pushes him to go to therapy. Santana lives nearby and spends time with him. He also finds hope from his wife and children.
McCray recalled a phone call with his mother (who has since passed away) after the truth came out, when she asked him if he believed in God now. When he replied “no” based on his belief that the truth would have come out anyway, his mother’s response was simple: “But He kept you alive, baby, to see it.” McCray smiled as he recalled her saying that. The smile on his face was a reminder that there’s still a light within him that finds its way to shine through the darkness of his pain.
They still have hope today
“Hanging out with Dr. Salaam and seeing how he has transcended his pain inspires me to do more, be more, be better.” —Chris Chalk, who portrays the adult Yusef Salaam
This series gives the world the opportunity not only to see what they endured, but to see that they survived. Richardson described watching the series as painful but necessary. The series is a conversation starter in hopes of moving toward a world where there will never be another “Central Park Five.” The fight gives them hope today. Salaam is a criminal rights advocate and has faith in the future generations that are going to change the system. Along similar lines, Wise established and funded the Korey Wise Innocence Project at Colorado Law School offering pro-bono legal counsel to the wrongly convicted.
Duvernay’s hope for the “Exonerated Five” is that after this they will not have to keep telling their story. That we have seen them. That we believe them. That they have been heard. A courtesy they were not given 30 years ago.