Seeing and Believing
Netflix’s When They See Us revisits the “Central Park Jogger” case, its shocking racial injustice and blindness to human values.
By the end of the 20th century, New York City may have been a genteel playground of Blahniks and designer cupcakes for some, but the urban landscape was very different just a decade earlier.
As the '80s lurched to a close, New York was plagued by the AIDS and crack epidemics, persistent urban blight and skyrocketing violent crime — the city averaged 36 murders per week. At the same time, two decades of financial crisis had left agencies underfunded, police understaffed and citizens scared, angry and on edge.
Along with a vicious cycle of urban decay and white flight, 1980s New York also saw Death Wish come to life with "subway vigilante" Bernie Goetz's 1984 shooting of four African-American would-be assailants and then the brutal 1986 beating of three black men by a gang of Italian Americans in Howard Beach, Queens.
It was against that backdrop, on April 19, 1989, that 28-year-old Patricia Meili was brutally beaten and raped during an evening jog through Central Park.
That the victim was a white executive at a Wall Street investment bank and her alleged assailants were five black and Latino youths from Harlem, that the attack was so brutal (she was comatose for 12 days) and that it appeared to have been the culmination of an evening of "wilding" by 30-plus neighborhood kids all seemed grim proof of a society out of control.
"The dominant narrative on New York in the 1980s was of a wrecked, failing, violent city," says reporter Jim Dwyer, who at the time worked the metro beat for Newsday. "This case seemed to pit those dystopic forces against the ability of the powers of the state to respond to them."
The so-called "Central Park Jogger case," then-mayor Ed Koch said, "is putting the criminal justice system on trial." History's verdict on that rhetorical trial has not been kind, as what followed would become one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in modern America.
Upon their arrest, the accused (Antron McCray, 15; Yusef Salaam, 15; Raymond Santana, 14; Kevin Richardson, 14; and Korey Wise, 16) endured a litany of malfeasance from the police, prosecutors and courts.
For example, investigators ignored a chronology that placed the five well away from the scene of Meili's attack, their DNA did not match a sample found at the scene, confessions were coerced and detectives offered conflicting trial testimony.
But the enormous pressure to bring someone to account, coupled with dire reputational stakes for the city's authorities, Dwyer says, caused a single-minded, win-at-all-costs mentality to prevail: "They had a conclusion, which was that, 'We could not be wrong,' and they tried to dismiss any evidence that showed they were."
All the while the media, led by its tabloid press, saw a story for the ages and ran with that appalling scenario, dubbing the suspects a "wolfpack" of "animals," "primitives" and "savages." A 41-year-old Donald Trump took out full-page ads in the city's five daily newspapers calling for a reinstatement of the death penalty.
Following two explosive trials, the result was across-the-board convictions for the suspects on various combinations of charges of rape, sexual assault and attempted murder.
So characteristic and yet sui generis was the tale that "America's biographer," Ken Burns, took it on in a 2012 documentary, The Central Park Five. But if Burns's harrowing chronicle enshrined the occurrences in the historical record, Netflix's When They See Us tells the story from the perspectives of the other victims: the boys and their families.
The four-part limited series debuted May 31, marking 30 years since the events it depicts. The project is the brainchild of writer-director Ava DuVernay, who is no stranger to race-based social justice issues, as seen in her 2014 drama Selma and her 2016 documentary about mass incarceration, 13th, among other projects.
"Our series gives the five men a platform to finally raise their voices and tell their full stories," she said in a statement announcing the series. "In doing so, Korey, Antron, Raymond, Kevin and Yusef also tell the story of many young people of color unjustly ensnared in the criminal justice system."
The project's title reflects DuVernay's desire to "embrace the humanity of the men and not their politicized moniker," says Tribeca Productions' Jane Rosenthal, an executive producer on the project along with DuVernay, Jeff Skoll and Jonathan King of Participant Productions, Oprah Winfrey, and Berry Welsh and Robert De Niro, also of Tribeca Productions.
"Ava pushed us on [the title]," Rosenthal continues. "It's about how, when somebody actually recognizes someone, when they see them as individual humans, they see their humanity" — as opposed to the outlaw connotations of "The Central Park Five." That makes it sound like they were the Kelly Gang. That's not what they were. They were kids on a school break."
DuVernay had originally conceived When They See Us as a feature film. She found a receptive ear at Participant, which had worked with her on the 2012 indie drama Middle of Nowhere. She later decided the project deserved a more expansive — and more personal — narrative; luckily, that decision coincided with Participant's expansion into television.
Not so coincidental: Participant's history of topical and historically charged projects, including Al Gore's landmark documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012), Best Picture Oscar winner Spotlight (2015) and the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On the Basis of Sex (2018).
No wonder Jonathan King, Participant's president of narrative film and television, thought When They See Us fit squarely in the company's wheelhouse. "We care very much about criminal justice, issues of mass incarceration, community policing," he says. "[The series] touches on so many issues that we as a company think are important and that need our attention."
More specifically, he says, "This show is about race and how the country still grapples with how young men of color are viewed, and how that is different. When I was young, I would have been given the benefit of the doubt all over the place. I would never have been caught up in something like that by the police, because I just wouldn't profile that way."
The project's 65-day New York City shoot — with DuVernay directing all the way — stretched from August to November of last year. Reenacting the charged subject matter in its real-life environs made for an emotionally fraught atmosphere for the cast, which includes Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Famke Janssen, John Leguizamo, Joshua Jackson, Michael K. Williams, Blair Underwood and Vera Farmiga.
Williams found himself struggling with the emotional weight of the material even before the cameras rolled. "I almost broke down at the table read," he recalls. "I thought, 'Okay, this is going to be that kind of trip.'"
He plays Antron McCray's father, Bobby; terrified and lacking full awareness of his rights — and warned that detectives would inform his employer of his criminal record — he signed the confession that would help seal Antron's fate.
"Can you imagine what Bobby must have felt like when he realized that he gave them the nail to seal his son's coffin?" he muses. "I've never gone that deep [into a character]. I gave [Ava] all of me, held nothing back."
For Nash, being cast as Korey Wise's mother, Delores, "felt like kismet," as she had become "obsessed" with the boys' story years earlier.
"When I spoke with Ava I was, like, 'Girl, you know you had me at hello.'" She, too, found the shoot emotionally grueling. "The days were tough," she says. "When they said, 'That's a wrap,' it felt like we had to do something for our shoulders to come down — let's go fellowship, let's have a glass of wine, talk about something extremely random."
In anticipation of that emotional toll on the cast and crew, a mental-health professional was on set at all times. "When you think that the course of your life can be changed forever and you didn't do anything wrong, it's jarring," Nash says.
"These were children. You're taking them away from their families during their formative years and putting them in a situation that can change their psyche — their emotional stability — for the rest of their lives." Having taken that trauma to heart, Nash has become an ambassador for The Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongly convicted.
With such emotionally freighted material, DuVernay didn't need to gild the dramatic lily; even sober, fly-on-the-wall portrayals would be sufficiently wrenching.
"It was never about melodrama," cowriter Michael Starrbury says, "or 'Let's write something to show how terrible it was.' You didn't really have to pull on any heartstrings or manipulate or try to have any off beats to a story like this, because it was all there." (Sharing writing duties with Starrbury were DuVernay, Attica Locke and Robin Swicord.)
In the series' first two hours, there's pathos, of course, but more striking is a kind of queasy, almost Hitchcockian suspense and dread.
First, the boys are snatched off the street and then, through a process of intimidation, sleep deprivation, starvation and interrogative sleight of hand, they are worn down and ultimately compelled into a bizarre complicity in their own doom. It feels both slow-motion and sudden, like a helpless descent into quicksand. As Williams says, "It was like sorcery, the way they manipulated these kids and their families."
By the time they had realized how to push back, it was too late; each of them rejected sentence-shortening deals that would have required guilty pleas.
By January 1991, Salaam, McCray, Richardson and Santana had been sentenced to five to 10 years in prison, the maximum for juvenile defendants. Wise, as the lone 16-year-old — despite being learning-disabled and afflicted with hearing loss — was sentenced to five to 15 years. He went first to the notorious Rikers Island and then to a succession of longer-term adult lockups.
Not surprisingly, enacting Wise's saga was an especially heavy lift, something actor Jharrel Jerome (Moonlight), anticipated.
"He was a 16-year-old boy in Rikers, home to the worst criminals in New York," Jerome says. "It was a rape case, a racial rape case, and a hate crime in the eyes of these men who don't know the truth, so he was automatically a target." As if to sum up Wise's particularly hellish double jeopardy, the actor concludes: "Imagine being an outcast... in jail ."
He recalls, "I had a lot of responsibility. This is a real person, not a character made up on the page."
A Bronx native himself, Jerome had more than a little identification with Wise and his cohorts. "It's very close to home for me," he says of their story, recalling, "There were days when I was 12 or 13 that I wanted to go out by myself and was told, 'No, it's not safe,' not only because of the gangs across the street but the people in blue."
Whether owing to empathy, talent or both, Jerome's performance is a delight amid the darkness, conveying Wise's pain, confusion and world-off-its-axis disorientation in a way that brings intense humanity to DuVernay's naturalistic drama. Starrbury says of Jerome: "If the world doesn't know who he is yet, they will after this."
In an almost Dickensian coincidence, Wise met fellow inmate Matias Reyes, a lifer known as the "East Side Rapist," via an argument over the television in their unit. Their resulting acquaintance would lead Reyes, in January 2002, to come forward as Meili's real assailant. That would lead, by year's end, to Wise's release after 13 years.
The others had finished their stretches between December 1995 and June 1997. On December 19, 2002, all five convictions were vacated and the boys, now men, were exonerated.
Over the following year Santana, Wise, Salaam, McCray and Richardson would file federal lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by the city's prosecutors, detectives and others. In September 2014, New York City finally settled the suit for $41 million.
The release and legal vindication of the five received much less media attention than the events that set their odyssey in motion. While history has closed the door on this saddest of chapters in New York history, true closure will likely prove elusive for all the victims of these tragedies.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 6, 2019
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