When They See Us Is an emotional and anger-inducing account of the tragic events of 1989 in New York City, where a female jogger was left for dead after being brutally raped and beaten in Central Park. Five young Black and Latino men were framed and convicted for the crime but were exonerated years later when the actual perpetrator confessed to the grisly attack. The four-part series, directed by Ava Duvernay, tells the story of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, the five men dubbed "The Central Park Five" by news media.
When They See Us stars Jharrel Jerome, Caleel Harris, Asante Blackk, Ethan Herisse and Marquis Rodriguez as the teenage versions of the five exonerated men, with Jharrel also playing the adult Korey Wise. The production was almost four years in the making, but the actual shooting began with a passionate table read where a majority of the cast went over their lines for the first time. What should have been a casual, straight forward meeting was given a heightened sense of importance by the presence of four of the five men.
“It was nerve wracking. Being in the same room as the people whose story you’re telling and reading their life story out loud, I was so nervous,” says Caleel Harris, who plays Antron McCray. “But those guys were so welcoming. They were grateful for us telling their stories and I was grateful to be able to tell their story. This is how strong they are, they’re survivors. It’s a powerful story that needs to be told. But reading their stories out loud was nerve wracking.”
While all of the performances by the young men are worthy of praise, Jharrel’s masterful portrayal of Korey Wise as a child trying to survive in an abusive adult prison system will leave audiences gutted.
“I’ll tell you what Jharrel did to me,” says co-star Michael K. Williams, who plays Antron’s father, Bobby. “We were at the table read. We hadn’t even begun filming yet. We read episode one and it was to the part where Korey was being sentenced and he was freaking out in the court room. And Jharrel started to go in AT THE TABLE READ. I’m sitting here and he’s to my left. I’m looking at him like, OK, this kid is going too hard, he’s gonna get you, Mike. He’s gonna get you. I didn’t want to cry at the table read. So I turned my head and looked this way and I locked eyes with the real Korey, who is just sitting there with tears streaming down his face. I took my baseball cap, pulled it down, and said it’s going to be that kind of ride. At the table read, he wore me out.”
Reliving the moments when their youth was literally stolen from them took its toll on the men in the room, but it created a bonding moment between the survivors and the actors.
“I haven’t healed yet. I’m still trying. It’s gonna take a long time,” Jharrel confesses. “Just knowing this story and having it in my head and now having it part of my soul and part of my heart, it’s going to continuously be my lesson, it’s going to be what I look up to as a beacon of faith and hope. But playing the part was by far one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. That table read was absolutely special. I looked up at Korey and he had tears coming down his face. The strongest man on Earth has tears coming down his face. I came up to him and gave him this hug. And he looked at me and took the chain off his neck and put it on mine and said ‘You’re Korey Wise now.’ It broke me down and I cried. He held me and said this is not a story of sadness and depression, this is a story of overcoming. This is the story of my life, let’s celebrate. Then he took me to Harlem and bought me sneakers.”
DuVernay says the bonding continued throughout filming and even in the post process as Wise and others visited the set. Counseling was provided on set to cope with the heart-wrenching material, but the finished product was more than worth it.
“In L.A. about two months ago I sat behind them in a small screening room, just us, when they watched it,” she says. “There were tears and embraces. It was a cathartic experience. My hope is that people come to know, respect and acknowledge what they went through and that that helps them in their own journey.”
When They See Us premiers on Netflix Friday, May 31.