When They See Us is unnerving. Ava DuVernay's gripping limited series tells the true story of the five teens of color, ranging in age from 14-16, who were wrongfully convicted of the rape and assault of a white woman in 1989. Across four installments, the Netflix drama illustrates in nauseating detail how police coerced Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson — dubbed the Central Park Five — into providing false statements, as well as the devastating effect those convictions had on their lives in the aftermath.
It's a series that will stay with you long after the credits roll. Watching as these young boys are robbed of their childhoods, their families ripped apart, only to be exonerated years later when the actual culprit comes forward is agonizing. Filming those difficult scenes also invoked some visceral feelings in the show's cast and crew, which is why they were provided with a special crisis hotline that allowed them to talk out their emotions on particularly troubling days. Although Asante Blackk, who plays a young Richardson, didn't use the hotline himself, he did reveal the one scene that he couldn't shake off even after cameras stopped rolling.
"Usually it's very easy for me to snap out of the emotion but for [the courtroom conviction] scene, it was crazy hard to snap out of that," Blackk told TV Guide. The second episode ends with all five convicted of the charges lobbied against them. While much of what was filmed made it into the series, the show left out one real-life moment that showcased how the case adversely affected the boys' families: Richardson's mother suffering a stroke while the jury read off the verdict.
"We did film it," Blackk said. "Just having that feeling of not knowing what's wrong with your mom while you're being dragged to a prison, not knowing the next time you're gonna see her, I felt that after they called cut. I was angry for Kevin [Richardson]. Like, how could they do something like this to him? I was caught up in the emotion."
That scene and many others like it are what make When They See Us essential viewing. Going beyond the Central Park Five moniker, those painful moments invite audiences to see the faces behind the names, to understand exactly what these boys endured as children who were caught up in a corrupt system actively working against them. For Jharrel Jerome, who plays Korey Wise throughout the series, When They See Us is an opportunity to give those wronged teens the agency they never received in real life.
"I hope that title comes to life for everybody because it's about time we see them," Jerome said. "We've heard of their story, but we don't see them as exactly who they are. We see them as the Central Park Five. It's time to break that and see them as individuals. I think that's what Ava and all of us, we're gonna try to do."
"I hope that [viewers] take away the effect that this had on their lives because a lot of people made a rush to judgment without any true knowledge of who they were," added Caleel Harris, who plays a young McCray. "I feel like that's why they titled it When They See Us, because finally, we get to see who they are as people. We finally get to see their lives outside of this crime. And you also see how this crime affected their lives even after their release."
When They See Us is now streaming in Netflix.