Nearly three decades after their wrongful rape convictions and subsequent years of imprisonment, the Central Park Fiveâ€™s story is told in Ava DuVernayâ€™s sweeping new limited series, When They See Us,Â launching Friday on Netflix. The creator, 46, shared its long road to the screen â€” and what making it taught her about criminal justice, Donald Trump, and (maybe) giving her soul a break.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Sarah and Ken Burns made a 2012Â documentaryÂ on the case, but thereâ€™sÂ still so many people who donâ€™t really know the details of what happened to these guys. What was it specifically that brought you on board?
AVA DuVERNAY: I remember from being a kid a junior in high school when it happened, but I was actually invited by Raymond Santana, one of the Five, to tell their story. I didnâ€™t know him but I followed the Central Park Five [Twitter] account, and he tweeted me and asked â€œWhatâ€™s gonna be your next film after Selma â€”Â CP5?â€ with question marks, and so I DMed him back and said â€œDoes no one have your story?â€ And he said no, so I said â€œWell, Iâ€™ll be in New York in a few months, maybe weâ€™ll get together,â€ not thinking much of it, but he continued to follow up.
It all just seemed to come together in an organic way â€” before I knew it I was speaking to all of the Five and their families and then I delved into research. For me, itâ€™s the first time any project has really come together in that way.Â 13th was one where Netflix came to me and said, â€œMake a documentary about anything you want!â€ This one was really an invitation from the people involved, and that really moved me.
Having done 13th,Â which explored the cause and effect of mass incarceration, did this feel like a companion piece in any way, or maybe another side of the coin?
For sure. I think for me this is 13thÂ in narrative form. The way that Iâ€™ve designed the piece certainly, itâ€™s about the case of the Central Park jogger, but on top of that â€” or actually underneath that â€” is a deep dive into the different phases of the criminal-justice experience.Â So the first part is all about police interaction, precinct behavior, bail. The second part is about court and plea trial and the ways in which weâ€™re processed through the legal system, the third part is about juvenile detention and post incarceration, how formerly incarcerated people are treated in this country, and the fourth part is about incarceration itself.
Thatâ€™s very much in line with some of the major parts of what 13thÂ is about, but this is just with character and story thatâ€™s dynamic in a way that I hope people come out of it and go, â€œWow, this is a system that weâ€™re ensnared in,â€ whether youâ€™re in prison, or know anyone in prison, or whether youâ€™re just buying shirts made by prison labor or thinking that a guy on the street is a criminal because he looks like one, based on what you think a criminal looks like. Itâ€™s asking us to engage and really think about all of our assumptions.
Altogether, it ends up being about five hours long. Did youÂ just realize as you worked that it needed more than maybe a regular movie length?
The great thing about working with Netflix is that they really donâ€™t have a lot of allegiance to time, so I had originally on my own thought that this was going to be a feature film, and as I delved into the story and researched it for four years and looked at those court transcripts did all the research of the press coverage and talked to all these families and heard their stories, I thought, â€œOh gosh, this is a series.â€ A project tells you what it wants to be, right?
As a CBS News intern in Los Angeles, you helped covered the O.J. Simpson trial. Did watching that intersection of race and crime and all these sort of tabloid-circus aspects firsthand carry over to this at all?
What the O.J. experience taught me as a young intern is to go further. News is not the end-all be-all. News is the invitation to ask the next question.Â Which is not to say that itâ€™s fake news â€” itâ€™s to say that we as Americans donâ€™t consume news with as much rigor as we should, and as we can. News is basically making you aware of something, but thereâ€™s a point in that awareness where itâ€™s up for us to say, â€œNow that Iâ€™m aware, what do I believe about it? What I do think?â€
A lot of your older cast members â€” Felicity Huffman, Blair Underwood, Niecy Nash â€” must have had memories of the case,Â especially native New Yorkers like John Leguizamo and Michael K. Williams. Did you discuss that much on set?
Oh yeah quite a few. It was a huge cast, 117 people, and a lot of them would talk about their recollection of this event at the time how it affected them across a wide social strata across gender lines and race lines. White women were told to fear the park, the whole â€œClutch your purse and watch your step when youâ€™re passing a person of color.â€ It also got people of color thinking about their own behavior and how they were trafficking in respectability politics, that they had to act a certain way so as not to be threatening.Â So you know, thereâ€™s a lot of layers to this, and I was fortunate to be able to shoot in New York City and get a lot of peoplesâ€™ perspective.
All but one of the boys were just 14 or 15 at the time they were accused in 1989. Was it hard to put your young actors playing them through some of the more brutal scenes? AsanteÂ Blackk, who plays Kevin Richardson, looks like such a baby in his scenes!
Asante, that was his first role â€” I plucked him out of a school play in Baltimore, and he did extraordinary work. My goal was just to make sure the boys were very well-educated about the case. They all met their real counterparts, and they knew they were there to portray these folks so that we can get truth for an injustice. They were also all young black men, boys, portraying others that are like them and they were speaking for them.Â It really felt like it meant something to them, so the hard parts didnâ€™t feel so tough.Â One of the boys told me, â€œIâ€™m just pretending like it happened, but it really happened to them, so Iâ€™ve got the easy part of it.â€
Thereâ€™s this really sort of heartbreaking moment where one of the kids says, â€œWhen they talk about â€˜boys will be boys,â€™ theyâ€™re not talking about us.â€ Which made me think of how we tend to speak about the teenage years of someone like, say, Brett Kavanaugh versus Tamir Rice.
Yes! Itâ€™s exactly what you just said. It really is who do we consider, who do allow to be exuberant, to be boys, to maybe have a little bit of bad behavior? To say, â€œAh, theyâ€™re just kids?â€ That never seems to be what we allow for black and brown kids. So that was a big part of what we wanted to do here. But I also think about how much progress has been made, slowly but surely, and I think film figures into that. It may not shift policy and politics, but there is this power to change someoneâ€™s mind, you know? Look at Tom Hanks inÂ Philadelphia, how much that changed how we feel about the LGBT community, and HIV/AIDS,Â you know? Look at the trans community, how much our views and nation has changed in the last five years.
Thereâ€™s something about storytelling.Â I believe in that power, whether itâ€™s 13thÂ or Middle of Nowhere or When they See Us, that folks start to shift what they think about the criminal justice system. Theyâ€™ll start to ask questions when they hear that next news report â€” theyâ€™ll ask what part they play in that system, because our complacency is a part of it, and through that weâ€™re complicit.
As a private citizen, Donald Trump famously took out ads in all the major New York dailies calling for the execution of the Five before their convictions. Did you make a conscious choice not to feature him as a character?
Yeah, thereâ€™s a world in which thereâ€™s an actual actor playing Donald Trump â€” I mean, we could have gone that route. And you know, it wasnâ€™t even a matter of restraint, it was if Iâ€™m being true to this being the mensâ€™ story, he did not figure into their story prominently when they were 14, 15-year-old boys in juvenile hall.Â He figured into their parentsâ€˜ story. They were concerned. But the boys themselves just thought he was like, this rich guy who owned the gold buildings in New York. They really werenâ€™t listening to him in that way.
Now we know the emotional violence that it caused his parents, who were listening and were feeling the trauma of having the death of their son being called for. But when I asked the men, â€œHow much did that figure into what you were thinking about at that time?â€ [It was] very little. They were focused on just getting through their day to day.
You have a lot on your IMDb page right now, including a Prince documentary, DCâ€™s New Gods, and a TV movie about a legendary 1973 fashion show. Were you maybe looking to maybeÂ lighten up your soul a little bit after all this?
[Laughs] Well thatâ€™s sort of what A Wrinkle in Time was after Selma and 13thÂ and Middle of Nowhere â€”Â letting a little black girl fly and experience love and the universe, which was kind of a great two-year break. And during the same time I was still kind of keeping my eye on and working on When They See Us.
But yeah, I got a lot brewing.Â All those projects that you name are in the process, and more â€” I always like to keep some surprises up my sleeve. Iâ€™m just trying to work on things that resonate with me and just make my heart beat a little bit faster. So if thatâ€™s something about injustice or thatâ€™s something more beautiful, if itâ€™s got my attention.
BatmanÂ writer Tom King teams up with Ava DuVernay forÂ New Gods script
Ava DuVernay unravels the Central Park Five case in Netflixâ€™sÂ When They See Us trailer
Broadway comes to TV with ‘American Utopia’ and ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’
Both shows are worth the time, although seeing them at home, frankly, reinforces what’s lost in translation given the tingle that live theater, at its best, can send up your spine — a sensation that doesn’t quite emerge on either front. Together, they underscore what “Hamilton” so impressively accomplished by conjuring that elusive magic. Notably,…
Both shows are worth the time, although seeing them at home, frankly, reinforces what’s lost in translation given the tingle that live theater, at its best, can send up your spine — a sensation that doesn’t quite emerge on either front. Together, they underscore what “Hamilton” so impressively accomplished by conjuring that elusive magic. Notably, HBO Max’s “The West Wing” special also captures some of that by bringing a TV show to the stage for the purposes of watching at home. (Like CNN, HBO is a unit of WarnerMedia.)Byrne, the Talking Heads front man, has always possessed a theatrical and cinematic flair, including his 1986 directorial effort “True Stories.” Those qualities inform “American Utopia,” a collection of songs — imaginatively choreographed and lit — that conveys the joyous and playful aspects of his music.On the plus side, that sense of fun is entertaining enough. The main drawback is that while Byrne addresses pressing issues during his chatting with the audience — including the importance of voting, and introducing his performance of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” name-checking Black people killed by police — there’s scant thematic adhesive to the presentation, unlike some other productions wedding rock to Broadway (Bruce Springsteen’s “Springsteen on Broadway,” filmed for Netflix, comes to mind).Lee does an admirable job of shooting the performance from every conceivable angle, although while the overhead shots are quite cool, one could probably do without closeups on Byrne’s feet, which along with the rest of the performers, are bare.Byrne’s playlist includes the hit “Burning Down the House,” and a boisterous rendition of “Road to Nowhere,” which includes a march through the appreciative audience.”American Utopia” doesn’t set the screen ablaze, but Byrne and his collaborators certainly know how to put on a show, even when it feels like they’re going nowhere.”What the Constitution Means to Me,” by contrast, is an audacious idea, one that starts slowly — at least in this format — before sinking in its hooks about halfway through.Playwright-star Schreck (a Tony nominee on both scores) earned college tuition money by competing in Constitutional debates, and revives her 15-year-old self to explore — humorously at first, pointedly later — its troubling and inequitable aspects, including mistreatment of women.Schreck’s reminiscing about “Dirty Dancing” and visiting legion halls to wax eloquently about the Constitution to mostly older men come into sharper focus when she exits the time capsule, and pivots to speaking in her 40-something voice.At that moment her memories and observations become sharper, from the patriarchal values of the court to violence against women to her own experience with abortion.”When abortion became illegal, it didn’t become rare,” she says, referencing the days before Roe v. Wade. “It only became deadly.”Schreck closes by engaging in a debate with a teen orator, Rosdely Ciprian, about whether the Constitution is indeed the living, breathing document that we’ve been taught to admire in school — adaptable to the modern age — or a hopelessly dated construct that needs to be discarded, starting over from scratch. It’s an interesting device, while lacking the impact of the material that precedes it.Directed by Marielle Heller (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), “What the Constitution Means to Me” serves as a reminder that those pining for the past tend to ignore historic inequalities. There’s even quotation from the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who caused a stir when she saw the show last year — which makes the special feel extra timely and poignant.Minor drawbacks aside, both shows have plenty to recommend them. And if live theater means anything to you, they provide at least a taste of what you’re missing.”What the Constitution Means to Me” premieres Oct. 16 on Amazon.”American Utopia” premieres Oct. 17 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO, which like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.
Taraji P. Henson confirms split from fiancé Kelvin Hayden
The “What Men Want” actress confirmed during an appearance Monday on “The Breakfast Club” that she and the former NFL player have ended their engagement.”I just turned 50 and I mean, I hadn’t said it yet, but it didn’t work out,” she told the hosts of the popular New York City radio show. “I tried.…
The “What Men Want” actress confirmed during an appearance Monday on “The Breakfast Club” that she and the former NFL player have ended their engagement.”I just turned 50 and I mean, I hadn’t said it yet, but it didn’t work out,” she told the hosts of the popular New York City radio show. “I tried. I was, like ‘Therapy, let’s do the therapy thing,’ but if you’re both not on the same page with that then you feel like, you’re taking it on yourself. And that’s not a fair position for anybody to play in a relationship.”The couple got engaged in 2018 and were scheduled to be married in June this year.In March Henson told “Extra” they were postponing the wedding due to the coronavirus pandemic.”It’s probably going to be more like July,” she said at the time. “We have to see what this will be like at the other end.”The “Empire” star was part of a panel discussion on “The Breakfast Club” about trauma and relationships.She said she loves Black men and Black love and is a fan of mental health support for her community. “It hurts when relationships don’t last,” she said. “I love to see Black love and I want to see more of it. I want to see our relationships last and make it.”
‘Supermaket Sweep’ hopes to get you swept into the fun
The phrase “global pandemic” had just been thrown around in the news the day before and even though I’d been prepping supplies and canned goods since the month prior, I decided that morning that our household could use a fresh round of the basics so we could hunker down for a couple of weeks. Everyone…
The phrase “global pandemic” had just been thrown around in the news the day before and even though I’d been prepping supplies and canned goods since the month prior, I decided that morning that our household could use a fresh round of the basics so we could hunker down for a couple of weeks. Everyone in West Los Angeles apparently had the same idea. I’ll remember that morning for the rest of my life because walking into a crowded grocery store with mostly bare shelves was something I had been privileged enough to not have experienced before. Though, there had been a time when I wanted nothing more than to run through a grocery store, clearing shelves as I went along. I loved “Supermarket Sweep” as a child and was convinced I could achieve financial independence if only given the chance to run the big sweep one day. (My plan was always to start by grabbing an inflatable bonus, running it back and then heading straight for the expensive meats.) This store looked like it had fallen victim to lots of sweepers but not in a fun way. Carts were piled high but faces were masked and not smiling. The eyes that poked above face coverings were filled with worry. By the time my turkey, ribs and I got to the checkout counter, and I heard that familiar beep, I didn’t think about “Supermarket Sweep.” I thought, “Get me the hell out of here.” ABC will premiere its reboot of “Supermarket Sweep” on Sunday, hoping to feed viewers’ appetite for escapist programming with their new take on the game show once hosted by David Ruprecht. In the process, it will confront the question of whether it’s escapist at all to be reminded of our complicated relationship with grocery shopping and food this year, whether you couldn’t find toilet paper or are one of the millions struggling with food insecurity in wake of the economic downfall. “We want it to be received with fun and laughter and joy and a little escape from the mask of it all,” executive producer Alycia Rossier told reporters on a recent conference call. “The grocery workers in the States have kept us alive for the last six months. They went to the store every day. And we see our store as a place of celebration.” The show honors a grocery store worker in every episode and awards them $2,000, Rossiter said. The groceries featured in the show’s store were also all donated to the Los Angeles Food Bank or, in the case of perishables, donated to animal charities that could use them as feed.”We were thinking about it every step of the way,” she said. That includes host and executive producer Leslie Jones, who noted that while people aren’t wearing masks inside their fictional grocery store, they are essential items. (Contestants and those on set were tested for coronavirus prior to filming, which occurred in late July, and safety protocols were instituted on set.) “I’m going to say right here, yeah, you’re supposed to have on your damn mask,” she said. If you appreciate Jones and her brand of humor for being as inherently joyful as intended, you’ll enjoy her in the role of host. Other than the prices of groceries, which will inspire sticker shock and the maximum amount of prize money ($100,000), no notable changes have been made to the game itself. And that’s great news because the game was perfect as it was. Jones sees the hour-long show as a chance for people “to bond together and know that there’s still some good stuff going on and that there’s hope.” Ultimately, viewers will decide if they’re ready to buy that.