“When They See Us” writer and director Ava DuVernay still talks to the real-life subjects of the series almost every day.
“This morning I talked to three of them,” said DuVernay at a Tuesday night screening for the four-part Netflix series, which tells the true story of the five black and Latino boys who came to be known as the Central Park Five through their arrest, imprisonment and eventual exoneration. DuVernay first met one of the five, Raymond Santana Jr., in 2014, after he reached out to her on Twitter. Since then, she says she’s developed close relationships with all of them.
“These are my brothers, I’ve gotten to know these men for four years, I’ve sat in their homes, I’ve met their families,” said DuVernay.
“We talk a lot and it’s not even about this, it’s like, Korey’s moving into a new apartment,” she said, referring to Korey Wise, another member of the five.
The show’s writing staff also bonded with their subjects in person.
Writer Robin Swicord recalled spending hours with the men — Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Wise and Santana — before starting work on their fictional counterparts. It made their experience of injustice and racism feel even more brutal.
“We didn’t have to make up stuff because they gave it to us,” said Swicord.
“These are profoundly kind and decent human beings,” “and so hearing their firsthand stories of abuse at the hands of police or the things they lost, about how hungry they were, how thirsty they were, how scared they were, I think hearing that was invaluable,” said fellow writer Attica Locke.
“Before we set up our writer’s room, we were given a humongous binder of just hundreds of articles, there were books we were told to read,” said Locke. “That was just to begin. The research kept going as we went through the process.”
The five men also got to review the scripts before shooting commenced, and DuVernay said that only Santana had notes.
“He loves his brothers, he fights for them. The only change that I was asked to make in the script was Raymond asking for a change on behalf of another man, saying ‘I think this would embarrass him,'” said DuVernay.
Locke wrote the second episode, which documents the hearing and sentencing that sent each of the teenagers, who ranged in age from 14 to 16 at the time, to prison, where they remained until 2002, when another man confessed that he had committed the crime. Spending time with Richardson, McCray, Salaam, Wise and Santana only made the archival courtroom footage harder to watch.
“It broke me. Those tapes absolutely broke me, and when I married having watched those tapes with the people that I met, the combination just made them full-fledged human beings to me, not political ideas, but men,” said Locke.
“When They See Us” was reported to be Netflix’s most-watched show in the United States, and Locke speculated that the current political climate made the show feel particularly relatable.
“We are living in a time of cognitive dissonance, which is how you have Linda Fairstein’s ass talking about all the stuff she’s talking about,” she said, referring to the prosecutor-turned-novelist who led the investigation of the Central Park jogger case. Fairstein is shown as the driving force in explaining away the boys’ innocence in the series, and has denounced this depiction.
“I think it resonates in this particular time, that we’re living in another time that we’re being gaslit on a daily f—–g basis,” said Locke.
The event, In Her Words: Spotlight on Women Writers in Film & TV, was put on by Women in Entertainment and the Writers Guild of America West at the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles. It featured a screening of the mini-series’ first episode and a Q&A with DuVernay, Swicord and Locke, moderated by The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill.