This story about “When They See Us” first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” stormed into the Emmy race late, premiering on Netflix on May 31, the final day of eligibility. The four-part limited series, an important moral reckoning from a director making her mark chronicling the scars of racial injustice in America, ended up with 16 nominations, more than any other Netflix program.
Cast members Jharrel Jerome (Korey Wise), Michael K. Williams (Bobby McCray) and Niecy Nash (Delores Wise), who were nominated alongside Aunjanue Ellis, Asante Blackk, John Leguizamo, Marsha Stephanie Blake and Vera Farmiga, spoke about the effect of telling the story of five young men of color unjustly imprisoned for a Central Park rape and assault in 1989.
What do you hope will be achieved by “When They See Us?”
MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS I’m praying this will be a catalyst to start the conversation, to recognize it’s more than just this situation. This is a result of decades of situations. When it was found out that an innocent white woman was attacked and the perpetrators could have been men of color, it struck a chord that goes way beyond this situation of what happened that night. It’s systemic.
The week we wrapped production, I was watching the news and I saw the story of Valentino Dixon. He was convicted of the crime of murder. Claimed innocence. Twenty-seven years he was in prison. To clear his mind he picked up Golf Digest, saw pictures of golf courses, and he sent in golf course drawings he’d done. Golf Digest decided to look into the case, and that’s how he got exonerated. I saw that story the week we wrapped.
There are people who are innocent out there, and I’ve decided to become an ambassador for the Innocence Project. Accountability is my favorite word right now.
What did you know about the case this series dramatizes?
JHARREL JEROME Not enough. I grew up in the Bronx, with parents who made sure that I was aware of things in the community. I remember the story as a lesson — a story saying, ‘Be polite to the police, stay away from bad crowds, don’t go out late at night.’ But especially for kids of my generation, it was a story that was in the past. I didn’t get to hear it in depth until Ava brought it to my attention.
It’s a very brave performance.
JEROME It was a very, very difficult process. Before I started, I had a lot of nerves over how I was going to be Korey Wise. But Ava’s one note was, “Nobody can be Korey Wise.” My job was to embody his spirit. That made me feel very calm, so I could come out of this feeling proud of myself and everybody else.
What was your first exposure to this case?
NIECY NASH I found the story as an adult. I felt like I was carrying the burden for these young men. I was obsessed with the case, years prior to Ava coming on board. But once I found that out, I instantly put in a call and said, “Listen, friend, I have to be a part of telling this story. I will play anybody.”
How did it change you?
NASH It made me want to be of service. To make sure that I advocate for other people who have been in the same circumstance. We have to be at a place where justice is for all and not for some. And America is allowing this to happen. When they see us, what do they see? As a society we’ve been socialized to see a monster, a predator, a wolf pack — when to me they are children.