It took me some time to watch When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s unflinching exploration of the nightmarish railroading and inhuman treatment of the Central Park Five, a group of teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. I’ve seen the equally heavy and laudable 2012 documentary (The Central Park Five) by Ken Burns, so I had a sense of the injustice and destructive media frenzy. I just didn’t want to feel the outrage and anger again, didn’t want to feel helpless in the fog that that generates, as we all often do when confronted by uncovered atrocities and the frequency with which they occur. Instead, I’d find something else to watch. Something light and fun. It’s a choice I make constantly, turning away from the news and muting certain words (and people) on social media. Because it’s all too heavy. Because I can. But when does escapism become evasion from a responsibility to be informed and when do you scorch your ability to feel empathy from too much exposure to these things? I do not know the answer to those questions.
I do know that I’m glad that I pushed through and watched When They See Us. If you feel like you’ve become numb, the depths of despair and the destruction of these five men will crack that shell, I promise you. It’s impossible to watch this and not only feel but quest to learn more about the history of the Central Park Five and other injustices. And in doing that, perhaps we learn a little bit more about the ways our justice system is broken. That’s what happened to Jharrel Jerome, one of the stars of the series who had the challenge of playing Korey Wise as both a naive teenager and a scarred adult (a task split between two actors for each of the other members of the five). Jerome went deep in his preparation to play Wise, whose story (powered by Jerome’s brilliant and multi-faceted performance) is laced throughout before anchoring the fourth and final episode. In the process of absorbing this story, Jerome went from cognizant to a state of hyper-awareness when it comes to the depths of the injustice that can occur in the shadows. But if nothing else, When They See Us is a form of light, and when we spoke to Jerome recently, we discussed the need to push past apprehension and fears about heaviness to watch this story and his own mission to continue shining a light on issues through his work.
When you learned about the story of the Central Park Five, what were your first thoughts about where the system was then to where it is now?
That nothing has changed. Not much has changed at all. I like to call this the Central Park Million sometimes, meaning this happens on a daily basis. Unfortunately, I’m sure somebody yesterday got picked up for looking like somebody else. So, it’s funny because before I did the project, I was very naive about these kinds of concepts and to the negative effects of the system. I knew the damage that police officers could do, I knew the damage that the government can do. I just had no idea of the actual pain that men and women go through in prison. I did not know that we were still in the midst of modern day slavery. It was working on this project that completely knocked that naïveté out of me and made me realize that there’s a lot to open our eyes to. A lot.
With that in mind, does it not surprise you, I guess, to see the push back against this narrative? I mean, recently, we saw President Trump commenting on it [he played a part in the public railroading of the Central Park Five in 1989] and trying to shut down the story. And we’ve seen other people that have pushed back and said that it’s a fabrication.
Yeah, unfortunately, no, that doesn’t surprise me. We’re always going to have this tear, 50/50. Once one thing is so beautiful and strong for one group of people, the other group of people will think it’s hateful and negative. I think that’s just human nature. And I think that’s just the way we work. Fortunately, we didn’t do this project for any of them. We didn’t do this project for Trump. We didn’t do this project for Linda Fairstein. We did this for the five men, for their story and their plight. So, those names that I just mentioned happened to be a pivotal part of the story. And however they are part of the story is how they are part of the story. It’s not something made up, it’s not something created to down anybody [or] put a negative light on anybody. It’s just a lot of shedding the truth.
So, however the world wants to receive it is how they’ll receive it. As for me, I did this for those five men. And the smile on their faces today? That’s all that keeps me complete. I haven’t read up on Linda Fairstein or Elizabeth Lederer. I did not read up on the Trump thing. It’s just not my interest and it’s not worth it for me. Especially after putting my heart and soul into this project for these men and nobody else. So, for me, that is the least of my worries. But it’s good to see that it’s a conversation and whether it’s a negative one or a positive one, the conversation was the point of this all. So as long as it’s being talked about, we think everything is positive in terms of that.