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When They See Us: why the real Central Park Five wanted Oprah to tell their story

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Megan Murray
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When They See Us has brought the injustice of the Central Park Five case to audiences world-wide. Now the men have discussed what they went through with Oprah Winfrey, and revealed why her support means so much. 

When They See Us is the four-part series on Netflix by Ava DuVernay that tells the injustice of its story so beautifully and painfully, it’s impossible to watch and not become emotionally invested. 

It dramatises the true story of the Central Park Five, five boys who were wrongfully convicted of rape and assault in 1990 and spent years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit as a result of police corruption and racism. But although the performances are masterful, each one is a representation of the real lives of Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise, who were robbed of a platform to tell their story for too long.

When They See Us has finally given a voice and in Oprah Winfrey’s words “redemption” to these men, and now in an emotional interview with both women they have explained some of the details of the real story and have explained why it means so much to do it with Winfrey.

On 9 June the cast and producers of When They See Us, as well as The Exonerated Five (as they are now known), sat down with Winfrey to discuss details of the series. 

As well speaking about the importance of things like having a grief counsellor on the set of When They See Us to help the actors with intense scenes, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise opened up about what the series and what telling their story has meant to them.

When They See Us: Ava DuVernay on set
When They See Us: Ava DuVernay on set

Before the discussion, DuVernay spoke on the red carpet about the importance of the evening, and explained to Variety why bringing together The Exonerated Five with Winfrey was such a big moment for the men.

The director recalled that, while researching the case for the series, she discovered that the men felt drawn to Winfrey as a trusted storyteller. As DuVernay spent time with each of them, she realised that they were desperate for the truth of the story to come out, and that they felt that Winfrey was the perfect representative to share their story.

DuVernay says: “[They thought] if they could get to Oprah and tell their story, maybe then people can hear their side because they knew how powerful she was, how much people listen to her. And it didn’t happen at the time they were incarcerated, they were guilty, people threw them away, and now it is their time. 

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“So the fact that they get to sit down with her and finally tell her — her specifically – their story is so emotional to me, so moving.”

Salaam also spoke to Variety about how much it means to him that Winfrey is speaking about their case at the ACLU of Southern California on 7 June, saying: “Korey said once that they put a bounty on our heads by taking out these full-page ads calling for our deaths. And in many ways, this is life after death.

“And for Oprah to be here, to be whispering our names — I mean, of course she’s shouting it — but to be whispering our names, it is just magnificent.”

The discussion itself featured some other truly moving moments. DuVernay discussed a scene from the first episode in which Wise (Jharrel Jerrome) is told by a policeman not to come to the station because his “name isn’t on the list”. At the time, police were rounding up teenagers of colour in the Harlem area as suspects in the crime, but Wise wasn’t one of them. Still, the then-16-year-old went to the station anyway in support of his friend Salaam, and sat there for hours.

This decision ultimately lead to his imprisonment. In When They See Us, the police are shown deciding that they need another suspect to make their theory work. Onscreen, we see them bully Wise into fabricating a confession, despite knowing that he wasn’t at the scene of the crime. DuVernay asked the real Wise if he regretted going along to the police station that day, to which he replied through tears: “I do, I don’t. I do, I don’t…”

“[I have] mixed feelings.”

You can learn more about the case of the Central Park Five here.

Images: Netflix

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Megan Murray

Megan Murray is a digital journalist for stylist.co.uk, who enjoys writing about London happenings, beautiful places, delicious morsels and generally spreading sparkle wherever she can.

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