The temperature in Southern California is well above 80 degrees. It's the warmest day of the year so far—the kind of Sunday in spring that inspires a frenzy of optimism for the long, hazy days of summer to come. But right before I sit down with producer and director Ava DuVernay and the cast of her new Netflix series, When They See Us, the mood changes. News breaks that Nipsey Hussle has been shot in South Los Angeles.
After the shock of the initial report, it's DuVernay herself who shares word that the rapper—whom she knows as a close family friend—has succumbed to his wounds. There is a collective moment of silence; the air fills with a profound sorrow, and she steps out of the room for a bit. Near tears, I am reminded of the bright, beautiful weather outside and of the ominous hood proverb: Folks act crazy when it's hot outside.
The very first scene of When They See Us also takes place on a warm April day, though in Harlem in 1989. Five boys join a large group of neighborhood kids on their way to Central Park, and what follows becomes a matter of national news. The boys—Raymond Santana Jr. (played by Freddy Miyares), Kevin Richardson (Justin Cunningham), Antron McCray (Jovan Adepo), Yusef Salaam (Chris Chalk), and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome)—are wrongly ensnared in a sensational investigation after a young white female jogger is found raped and left for dead. The boys come to be known as the Central Park Five, and their lives change forever.
DuVernay's four-part series—her first big directing project since A Wrinkle in Time—recounts not just the highly publicized trials that sent the boys to prison but also the eventual vacating of their sentences and their return to society. It makes for the kind of viewing experience that some would call “emotionally gripping” and others (read: black and brown people) may find triggering, as it mirrors persistent and deep-seated personal fears. We see futures squandered, lives trampled. The five could have been brothers, lovers, husbands, friends, or children.
In restoring to these men some semblance of their humanity, the show makes a powerful argument about an especially cruel aspect of oppression: After the system destroys you, it then dictates how your story gets told. Thirty years on, DuVernay hopes When They See Us will correct the record.
“Really, it's not a crime drama,” DuVernay says of When They See Us, “it's a family drama.”
GQ: Ava, how did you choose this story as your next project?
AVA DuVERNAY: I received a tweet from Raymond Santana Jr. asking what my next movie was—and would it be CP5? I went into his DMs. I said that I'd be in New York and while I was there I would look him up. We had a meal, we talked, and I'd seen a documentary and thought it was a compelling story. I met all of the men, one by one, and told them that I wanted to tell it.
I know a number of you were able to meet the person you played before shooting—including at the meal Ava organized at Red Rooster in Harlem. What was it like to meet these men?
JHARREL JEROME: We were blessed that they showed up to the table read, and that's where I got to meet Korey [Wise]. I had so many nerves just meeting these guys. Just knowing the responsibility that we have to play these men. Everything was so delicate you could hear a pin drop.
DuVERNAY: The men were involved with the whole process. They were interviewed extensively by me, by the other writing staff, and they were on set. They were just [in L.A.] a couple of days ago, watching the cut before it was finalized.
CHRIS CHALK: At the lunch we had at Red Rooster, Dr. [Yusef] Salaam and I immediately started vibing. I was like, “Oh, we're like the same human being!” He's so driven. Prison didn't hurt his mind. He had such a strong sense of family inside of the prison, because of his religion and because of his mother. And I'm such a mama's boy as well, so I was like, “Okay! I can honor you.” Being able to have conversations with him has been extraordinarily useful and calming, and I was like, “Okay, I feel like I am equipped to do this.”
There's a lot that's covered in this series that must connect with your own experiences as black and brown men. Was it hard to take the characters home with you, to live with this material off set?
JOVAN ADEPO: It's hard to completely get rid of all the material; it causes you to look at the world differently as you step away from set.
JUSTIN CUNNINGHAM: I don't know if purposefully or accidentally, but I always take it home. I'm always trying to work through what is on the page. I think, for me, although it was extremely terrifying, I do believe that I learned so much.
CHALK: I don't have to endure what these men had to endure. I get to pretend to endure it, so taking that home for a couple of months? I'm gonna be okay.
DuVERNAY: It's been a challenging few years. Going from Selma, directing beatings and murders, to 13th and thousands of hours of racist, violent footage. I wanted to take a break and make little black girls fly, and I did that for a bit. But for some reason, I'm drawn to telling these kinds of stories. I think they call it “social-justice filmmaking,” whatever. These stories have the opportunity to not just shift/shape culture but shift the way we think about each other and the way we think as black people and brown people. It's race work, and through that, the privileged and the allied may be educated. We're always hearing about representation, but inherent in the word “representation” is having to assert who you are. You have to represent who you are.
Ava, why did you choose to name the project When They See Us?
DuVERNAY: It had a working title of Central Park Five, which is what a lot of people still refer to it as. But I wasn't interested in assigning a name that was given to these men by the state, really, and by journalists. It was a moniker that I felt further dehumanized them. I want you to know their names, and I want you to see them. I want to talk about their case, but I also want to talk about the overall landscape and culture in which their case can exist.
So by redefining the scope of the story so that it wasn't just this hashtag, I'm hoping that it allows us to see different layers of the narrative and to look at each man individually. It was important for us to show that Kevin played the trumpet, that Antron played baseball—and to show that Yusef had a mother who wanted him to be home at a certain time. So it's the beauty of the specificity of each of the men and each of the boys that I hope will elevate this. Really, it's not a crime drama, it's a family drama. One that hopefully puts a human face on the overall epidemic of police aggression and mass incarceration.
What are some of the conversations that you hope stem from this project?
ADEPO: People understand that the court system is still highly flawed, and so is law enforcement. When something like this comes out, people have a tendency to pick sides. I think it's less about picking sides and [more about] just finding a collective solution to the problem.
JEROME: A major problem in this country that a lot of people my age are not aware of is mass incarceration. All my homies see jail as a place of “Don't go there, don't get there,” but they don't realize that it's sometimes not your choice. Sometimes it's not up to you. This is every day. This [series] is not just them. It's their story, but it's also so many other men's and women's story. I think art needs to go in the direction: showing what mass incarceration does. I think When They See Us is going to show the heart it takes for somebody to go through prison.
FREDDY MIYARES: This isn't an isolated incident. This happens so frequently. Not only were these individuals affected; it was their families and, moreover, their neighborhood. This has a rippling effect. Some of their neighbors thought that [the boys] were demons and blamed the parents for raising demons, because they fed on what the media was giving them.
CUNNINGHAM: I think these stories, thank God, are being told more today, but I feel like still, a lot of times, people in this country don't hear them or see them. What I hope for is that people truly educate themselves about how they feel, what they feel, why they feel it. This is a real story. How do we create a society that cares about what happens to people?
DuVERNAY: I think when you see the stories of these men, hopefully, most people will be called to some kind of action.
Judnick Mayard is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles.
A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2019 issue with the title " “I Want You to See Them” "
Photographs by Awol Erizku
Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu
Grooming by Courtney Housner for Exclusive Artists Management
Hair, for Ava DuVernay, by Saniyyah S. Griffin
Makeup, for Ava DuVernay, by Ernesto Casillas
Set design by Tom Wyman at Tom Wyman Designs
Butterflies from Diana Terranova
Originally Appeared on GQ