[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Netflix's When They See Us — including one that will surprise people who thought they knew the story. Read at your own risk!]
When They See Us, Ava DuVernay's cinematic retelling of the wrongful rape and assault conviction of five teenage New Yorkers in 1989, hurts to watch. As its (revised) title implies, the four-part Netflix miniseries forces viewers to see the accused — 14-year-olds Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez) and Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk); 15-year-olds Yusef Salaam (Ethan Herisse) and Antron McCray (Caleel Harris); and 16-year-old Korey Wise (Moonlight's Jharrell Jerome) — as children, unlawfully coerced into giving false testimony about a rape in Central Park and the catastrophic aftermath those confessions had on their lives.
When They See Us depicts in devastating detail not only how the boys were sentenced to six to 13 years in prison before being exonerated when the true perpetrator came forward, but it also shows how the young men, known as the Central Park 5, had their childhoods stolen, families torn apart, development stunted, and mental health compromised because of this case. An emotional minefield from start to finish, When They See Us will likely cause outrage and anguish among viewers unable to conceive how prosecutors manufactured a case with no evidence, and how the news media bought the story without ever questioning police accounts. The details are so incredulous and the emotion so intense, it's reasonable while watching to wonder if it all went down as portrayed. So what's true and what's Hollywood fiction? Here's a breakdown of some of the biggest moments...
- Truth or fiction? The night Trisha Meili was raped in Central Park, April 19, 1989, police officers called the (innocent) boys, including Kevin, "animals" as they captured them.
True: In The Central Park Five, a documentary by award-winning documentarian Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah, Kevin Richardson notes the police called him an animal as they collared him. This is significant because it hints that law enforcement officers had already made up their minds about the teens' character and presumed guilt even though Kevin came from a two-parent home with a disciplinarian father and was, of course, innocent of the crimes levied at him.
- Truth or fiction? Raymond Santana had gone to the park with his buddies just because he was caught up in the moment and wanted to hang out.
Fiction: It's a minor distinction, but in The Central Park Five, Santana's father (played by John Leguizamo in the Netflix series) says he told his son to go hang out in the park to get Raymond off the street — advice that clearly haunted him forever.
- Truth or fiction? Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) spots a set of drag marks from the victim's body in the park.
True: As explained in The Central Park Five, this becomes a meaningful detail later as the holes in Fairstein's arguments become more apparent as time goes on. How could five people rape and assault someone and not leave multiple tracks?
- Truth or fiction? The boys were left to testify to officers without parents or attorneys present.
True: Experts say the combination of intimidation tactics, sleep deprivation, hunger, and terror on the boys' part led them to agree to whatever cops said so they could go home.
- Truth or fiction? Detectives saw Korey Wise with Yusef on the street and pulled him in.
False: In The Central Park Five, Yusef says he bumped into Korey, who told him he'd heard detectives were looking for them. Korey says they went upstairs to Yusef's apartment and the detectives were at Yusef's door. They told Korey his name wasn't on a list of suspects but, as depicted in the series, he could come to the station with his buddy. "I came home seven years later. Korey came home 13 years later," Yusef says. In the Netflix series, all this occurs on the street.
- Truth or fiction? Yusef's mom turned to an attorney with no criminal experience.
True: Not only that, Yusef says in The Central Park Five documentary that at one point during the trial, he looked over and swore he saw his attorney dozing off.
- Truth or fiction? Antron's dad (played by Michael K. Williams) became so overwhelmed and grief stricken by the case he just up and left the family.
True: Antron really never forgave his father either.
- Truth or fiction? Donald Trump spent $85,000 on four ads in newspapers calling for the death penalty.
True: Worse, in 2016, 14 years after their sentences were vacated, he continued to assert the boys' guilt.
- Truth or fiction? Raymond Santana always maintained that he never committed any crime in the park, and he later went back into prison for drug charges after he was exonerated for the rape case.
This one's questionable. While Raymond did, in fact, go to prison on possession charges and remain steadfast that he never committed a crime in the park, he apparently did admit to beating and/or mugging someone in the park that night 13 years after the infamous evening.
- Truth or fiction? Yusef's mom wore an airbrushed T-shirt proclaiming Yusef's innocence to proceedings.
True: That happened.
- Truth or fiction? Korey had a trans sister who was murdered.
True: "Korey really did have a sister who transitioned," said Isis King, the actress who plays Marci in When They See Us. This detail has been overlooked in most other accounts of this story, but Ava DuVernay wanted it in. "They wanted to honor her."
King told TV Guide that Marci had another (female) name before becoming more known in the community as Marci, so that's the name the producers used. When she got an opportunity to send in a self-audition tape on a Wednesday, King stayed up all night memorizing her lines, sent in a tape on Thursday, and then flew from Los Angeles to New York on a Friday for a second audition. "I really didn't have much to go on," King said, but having been the older sibling to boys cutting school and then transitioning herself in spite of a reluctant mom, she instinctively knew the material. "I felt like I had to make Marci proud, for all the trans women who had someone telling us we were not good enough for a job, for love... Ava really allowed me to have range and kept asking, 'What do you think? What do you want to do? Are you comfortable?' For her to want my feedback, that meant a lot; I just wanted her to be proud."
As for Korey, King said she met him at the wrap party and though the loud, celebratory event didn't give them much time to have a conversation, King said they were introduced. "He was cool about [me playing his sister.] He was like, 'Wow!' I think I got his stamp of approval. I think she had a big part to do with his life."
- Truth or fiction? Linda Fairstein refused to acknowledge her prosecution was flawed in spite of overwhelming evidence "the five" were innocent, and a confession from the perpetrator.
True: She hasn't wavered either. In the intervening years, she's enjoyed a successful career as a celebrated author of crime fiction.
So When They See Us' storyis overwhelmingly true to how the real events happened, according to news reports, historical record, and the people involved. While When They See Us does not feature the voice of the victim, she has continued to maintain that she believes the boys had some involvement in her assault — despite repeatedly saying she had no recollection of the incident and DNA evidence linking Matias Reyes to the crime.
When They See Us premieres Friday, May 31 on Netflix.