It’s impossible to be alive in America right now and not be aware of two things: Oprah’s ability to bring attention to something and a renewed awakening to this country’s deplorable history and continued shameful practice of racism on a grand scale. On Sunday night, in the final event of Netflix’s FYSEE series of programs designed to showcase the streaming service’s series, movies and documentaries that they hope Emmy voters will consider for nominations (voting starts today), the featured program was Netflix’s limited series from director/co-writer/executive producer Ava DuVernay, When They See Us, hosted by Oprah Winfrey, herself an executive producer of the 4-part series based on the true story of The Exonerated Five.
Following a screening of the first episode of the series, Oprah served as moderator of a discussion of the movie with its cast and crew, including the actors who play the younger and older versions of the five young men whose lives were forcibly altered when they were falsely accused and then imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit in 1989 in New York City. Also in attendance was award-winning Ava DuVernay, the director and driving force behind the series, who has deemed it a personal mission to shine a spotlight on stories of racial injustice in this country, from Selma to 13th, and now with When You See Us, perhaps her most emotional and relevant piece yet.
DuVernay told the audience that even though the series took 4 years to come to fruition, right now is the exact right time for it to be seen. She wants the piece to be a catalyst for conversation, and hopefully for change. The series is about the racism that is still inherent in this country, but, much more specifically, it’s about a justice system that was built on that racism and continues to this day to be unequal towards brown and black people—especially men. When They See Us is a hard look at the experiences these five young men had while being imprisoned and all it took to get them exonerated, which they finally were in 2002. In fact, DuVernay made it absolutely clear that they should no longer be thought of or spoken of as the Central Park 5. They should be known as “The Exonerated Five.”
The series is about the stories of these five men, but it is much more implicitly a story of the American justice system. DuVernay stressed the importance of not laying all the blame for the case at the feet of the lead prosecutor in the case, Linda Fairstein (played in the series by Felicity Huffman, who wasn’t in attendance), despite the overwhelming evidence that Fairstein acted unlawfully in her department’s handling of the case, including denying legal representation to the boys, coercing statements, and proceeding with the case without any evidence. Even though Fairstein certainly should accept her responsibility for what happened, DuVernay says, it’s not all about her. The system isn’t broken, she insisted, instead it was built exactly to be this way. It was built to be unequal and the only way to change the system is to make people aware of how inherently unfair it really is, which is why this series is so important and why they were so happy to hear the series was trending the day after it dropped on Netflix in 191 countries. DuVernay wants this series to be an instrument not just for awareness, but for real change.
As if that wasn’t powerful enough, the third part of the evening featured Oprah sitting with DuVernay and the five real men whose lives are depicted in When They See Us, the Exonerated 5: Kevin Richardson, Anton McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise and Raymond Santana. Oprah’s intent was to get the audience, in the room and at home, to really understand what these men went through and how it affected them—something Oprah is quite good at. It was quite a powerful experience to be in the room to hear these men recount their memories and feelings and opinions on how the justice system failed them and how their lives were immeasurably changed. Most moving of all were the heartbreaking words from Anton McCray, who admitted that he is broken and offered very little hope to the audience that he will ever be able to find joy or hope in life again. In that moment, it became overwhelmingly real to this audience that this wasn’t just about pushing a movie to get awards. You could hear a pin drop in the room as Anton was quietly telling Oprah that his life was ruined. “No, it’s not!” a lone voice cried out from somewhere in the middle of the audience. In that moment, even Oprah was speechless.
Both conversations will be aired on Netflix and OWN on Wednesday, June 12 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
When They See Us is currently streaming on Netflix.