Filmmaker Ava DuVernay says she receives a couple dozen tweets a day from people asking her to make a movie from their life story. But this #wishfulthinking tweet from Raymond Santana caught her eye:
Santana was one of five teens arrested for the 1989 assault and rape of a white woman in New York’s Central Park. The boys were pressured into false confessions and convicted. All served time. A murderer who was already serving a life sentence later confessed to the rape.
DuVernay remembers when it all happened: “I was a teenager on the West Coast when they were teenagers on the East Coast …” she says. “It meant a lot to be asked by them.”
Her Netflix miniseries When They See Us will be released Friday. A 2012 documentary called The Central Park Five also explores the wrongful conviction, but DuVernay says “there was more story to tell.”
“It was expansive to me,” she says. “It was a famous case that allowed me to interrogate all the different parts of the criminal justice system.” She sees this miniseries as a “companion piece” to her documentary 13th, which draws a line between slavery and mass incarceration.
Though DuVernay explores the larger criminal justice system, When They See Us also zooms in to show how incarceration fractures individual families.
“When you incarcerate one person you’re incarcerating their family, their future, their community,” DuVernay says. “In the large numbers that we’re incarcerating people, you’re incarcerating a generation of people. … It’s something that we need to look at with knowledge of what it is — not just look at and say ‘It’s a shame.’ ”
On the grief of losing a family member to incarceration
Many of us, most of us, have lost someone in our life and we know what that feels like, you know, at the moment of the loss, the first week, the first month, the first year of the loss, and two years and three years — and it starts to change. It’s always there, but it starts to change as time goes on because there becomes a distance from the presence of that person — the physical presence of that person — in your life. So it’s this idea of separation, but a presence that never allows the grief to change into anything else — except, you know, a deep absence that is inescapable.
On portraying how scared the boys were
You have a lot of people saying, ‘Well, how could you say something that wasn’t true?’ Well, OK, I’m a black or brown kid in a closed room with white men who are authority figures who have guns on their belts and badges and who are terrifying. … They were scared. … Lies were told, and they did what they thought they needed to do to get them out of the room, not knowing enough about their rights to know that what they were doing was … putting them in a cell. … [The] camera movement and framing and composition — all of that was to bring you into the heartbeat of the boys as their adrenaline starts to rush from the terror of where they were.
On whether New York City or the prosecution have acknowledged wrongdoing
The city never apologized, they settled. No one on the side of the prosecution ever apologized. They’ve stuck by the fact that even though the real man came out and said: I did it, I did it alone. Even though all of that physical evidence was from him was matched to the victim, and it was in fact him, and only him, these people still refuse to acknowledge that they — not made a mistake — lied. Lied.
On whether she sets out to “change minds”
My goal was to tell the stories of the men and certainly to illuminate larger injustices within the system. … But my purpose is not to change anyone’s mind. … I want to honor the men, honor their experience. I want to show black and brown people themselves within the system being fully human. The goal of my work is not to … try to convince anyone of anything, but to honor what is.
On screening the film with the Central Park Five
I had the honor of sitting behind them as they watched the film. … We’d worked on this together. I worked very closely with them on it for four years. To sit behind them and watch them watch themselves, and watch each other, in this five-hour epic saga … about injustice that had been perpetrated upon them was deeply emotional for them, deeply emotional for me. … [It was] just a very intimate, personal, emotional moment that I think outweighs anything that I’ve experienced as a filmmaker up until this point. … I don’t quite know what can top it. My goal was to tell their stories — and to get the ‘well done’ from them, with tears in their eyes, was everything I need.
On whether the men are at peace
No amount of money can bring back your childhood, your youth, your family structure that’s been lost or irreparably damaged. … Everything’s been affected by this. … There’s so much you can’t get back. So, no, I think they’re far from peace.
NPR reached out to former prosecutor Linda Fairstein, who is portrayed by Felicity Huffman in When They See Us, for comment.
She told NPR her attorneys sent documents and videos related to the investigation to the series producers, and that she would only agree to speak with them after they’d reviewed the materials. Fairstein said she never heard back from producers after that.
She also called the depiction of her in the series “grossly” inaccurate and said the film is a “fictional dramatization of events.”
Victoria Whitley-Berry and Ashley Brown produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.