TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Emmy Awards ceremony is Sunday, September 22. This week, we're featuring interviews with some of the nominees. The four-part Netflix series "When They See Us" has 16 nominations. We're going to hear from Ava DuVernay, who's nominated for directing the series and for co-writing the final episode. She's also one of the series producers.
"When They See Us" dramatizes the story of the Central Park Five. That was the name given to the five black and brown boys age 14 to 16 who, in 1989, were accused of brutally raping and nearly killing a woman who was jogging in Central Park. They became symbols of crime in New York City. Donald Trump took out full-page ads in the city's four newspapers calling for the death penalty. The five were convicted based on confessions they made shortly after they were arrested, confessions they soon after said were coerced.
In 2002, the real rapist confessed, and his DNA matched the evidence found on the victim's body. He was a serial rapist who always acted alone, and he testified that the five had nothing to do with the rape. In 2002, after the five collectively served over three decades in prison, their convictions were vacated. A year later, they filed a civil lawsuit against New York City. In 2014, they collectively received a $41 million settlement, but they couldn't get back the years of their lives they'd lost in prison.
Ava DuVernay also directed the film "Selma," which dramatized a chapter of the civil rights movement, and "13th," a documentary about mass incarceration and its echoes of the eras of slavery and Jim Crow. Ava DuVernay, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Did you know much about their story before you made this series?
AVA DUVERNAY: Only what I knew as a teenager growing up in Compton. I was on the West Coast at the same time that these boys were on the East Coast in Harlem. I was all over the place. It was big news in Los Angeles. And it really was something that I focused on because these were black boys who looked like me and my friends. They were around the same age. I'm the same age as Korey Wise.
And so to hear of this, you know, dastardly, despicable kind of devastating crime that had taken place - and particularly, the word wilding caught my attention because I didn't know what it was, and I wanted to know what that meant. So I called a cousin in New York, and I asked what it was. And he said, we don't know. We think they mean wiling out.
And wiling out is - does not mean gang-raping women. Wiling out is hanging out, you know, kind of like being free for the night, acting carefree. And it's not a wolf pack of animal-like thugs going into the park to, you know, torture and demean and assault and rape people. That's not what wiling out means. So part of what we do in our piece is try to kind of trace and track how wiling out becomes wilding becomes wolfpack becomes, you know, animals becomes, you know, a prison sentence for these five boys.
GROSS: All five were interviewed for the Ken Burns documentary, but one of them was voice only. He didn't want his face on camera. He wanted to keep his privacy. And I'm wondering how the five young - how the five men - I mean, they're in their mid-40s now - how they felt about having the story told again and having the dramatic version out there again with actors playing them because on the one hand, it's a story in which their charges were vacated. So they are not guilty. At the same time, they probably want to put the story behind them to some degree, if that's possible. So how did they feel about having you tell the story?
DUVERNAY: Well, they are all individuals, so they all felt differently about it. You know, you speak of Antron McCray, who did not go on camera for the Burns doc. I remember flying out to Atlanta to see him. You know, he was the most - he was the one with the most hesitation about doing it, but he'll always say if my brothers are going to do it, I'll do it. And I remember talking with him and just really wanting to get a sense of who he was and how he felt about the process.
And he said to me at one point, I'm probably going to have to move when it comes out. And I said, why do you think you'll have to move? And he says, I just don't want people to know. And I said, what? - like, people on your street? And he said, yeah. I said, so no one on the street that lives around you - beautiful street in Atlanta where he lives. I said, no one knows who you are? He says, they know I'm Antron Brown. And I said, so they don't know you're Antron McCray. And he says, no, I'm not Antron McCray here.
When I speak with him more more recently, I think it's changed. He still is not kind of gung ho about any part of the process, but he is wanting the story to be out there. And he understands that although it's uncomfortable for him, it's helping other people. As far as the other men, Yusef was very forthcoming and excited about telling the story, as was Raymond and Kevin. I think the other gentleman who had a little bit of hesitation was Korey Wise.
And the hesitation was only because the process of making the film is, you know, not something that folks who don't make film really know about, so it was a lot of questions about process and how deep he was going to have to go in telling his story and who he would be telling it to. So it became important to him that it didn't feel like he was on the stand or speaking with police, that the process was very intimate and that he felt comfortable in sitting down with us and telling us stories.
He did not come into a formal writers' room. We created a space for him that felt like a house, so I literally rented a house and flew them in. And they just, basically, felt like they were sitting around our house, telling us stories on the couch so that the formality of the desk and the chair and the office that felt very institutional - we broke that down, and we were able to get to stories that felt much more personal.
GROSS: So from having talked to the five men, what were some of the ways that you think the boys were manipulated by the police and prosecutors to give the false stories that they gave, to give the false confessions that they made?
DUVERNAY: Some of the ways that we show in the piece are that they were without their parents. They were not given food or water. They were asked to repeat the story. Details were inserted into the story through repetition.
GROSS: You mean they were prompted to say things that they added?
DUVERNAY: Stories were repeated and repeated again and again by both parties, and details were added through repetition. And so that was one of - that's one of the ways, and also to please who was asking them the questions, all under the kind of false belief that they would be allowed to leave if they cooperated. And that, quote, unquote "cooperation" was, you know, picking up these additional details.
I mean, one of the first questions that one of the boys was asked was, what was she wearing? And he didn't know. Kevin Richardson started to describe - I don't know - whatever he thought a white woman would be wearing, running through the park. At one point, they didn't even know she was white. They get into these details of talking about trying to sit there and piece together a story and make the person in front of them happy with it. And there were a number of different techniques that were used on them that were ultimately successful.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ava DuVernay, and her new Netflix series dramatizes the story of the five men who were known as the Central Park Five. The convictions were vacated. They received a total of $41 million in a settlement from the city of New York. And she tells their story in this new Netflix series, and it's called "When They See Us." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Ava DuVernay. She produced, directed and co-wrote the new Netflix series "When They See Us," which dramatizes the story of the five young men - who are now middle-aged men - who became known as the Central Park Five after they were accused and then, based on false and coerced confessions, convicted of raping and assaulting a woman who was jogging in Central Park.
When - about 12 years later, when the convictions were vacated, they sued the city of New York and, years later, won a total of $41 million in a settlement. And, you know, after making these coerced confessions, they recanted the confessions. And they never backed down from recanting, even after they were in prison and some of them were offered, you know, parole if they just, you know, took responsibility for the crimes that they committed. They said, we didn't commit those crimes.
DUVERNAY: That's right. Even Korey Wise, who - 13-some years in prison in the worst prisons in New York state - never wavered from the truth, which was that he didn't do it, and lying had gotten him to that place. He believes that lying got him into prison - you know, following the coercion, trying to please, being told that he would be allowed to leave if he said certain things. Those were the regrets that he lives with as a man - you know, decisions that he made, you know, trusting authority figures as a boy. He never intended to lie again. So, yeah, you know, they never wavered. They never lied again. After they all connected, they never went back on their word.
GROSS: A lot of the final episode is devoted to the story of Korey. And his story is just, like, particularly heartbreaking. He was charged only because he agreed to accompany his friend who was being picked up on - by the police on the night of the attack in Central Park. And Korey's name wasn't even on the list of people who they were rounding up. He was just - the cop said to him, why don't you come to the station house with your friend? And so to be loyal to his friend, he came along, ends up making a false confession, ends up getting convicted and ends up being the only one of the five who's tried as an adult and is sent to adult prisons, where he's repeatedly brutalized and assaulted.
And also, I think what makes hard - it harder for him is that either he can't read well, or he can't read at all. I wasn't quite sure, like, if he could read at all. But that makes it harder for him to figure out what's going on sometimes. And also, he was born - or early in childhood had a hearing impairment, so his speech is a little bit slurred.
And, like, I think all of those things must have added up to make his years just especially difficult. And I'm wondering, having met all of these men when they were in their 40s, if you feel that he is still, like, suffering a lot because of all of these extra things that he was exposed to.
DUVERNAY: Oh, yeah. I mean, he's definitely suffering. He did 13 years. His childhood - his youth was stolen from him. He...
GROSS: Right, he did more years than the others.
DUVERNAY: So yeah, I mean he's definitely affected by all of that and, you know, is trying to make his way through a new life. You know, he always says life after death, life after death. And this is what he is trying to navigate - how to be here on the outside, in the world, having gone through, you know, a type of darkness that, you know, is really almost impossible to describe. What you see in the film is not all of what he endured.
GROSS: You mean it was even worse than you depict?
DUVERNAY: There was more. There was more.
GROSS: More beatings?
DUVERNAY: There was more damage done to him, more darkness, more trauma. And so whenever he's in front of me, I just think he's a miracle. Even when he's not in front of me, I think about him so much. We've become close. And he's very - he's got a brilliance about him when you sit and talk to him. You know, most people aren't patient enough to sit there and talk to him. But when you do, you get rewards.
And so, you know, I tried to take all of my conversations with Korey, which were so heart-expanding for me - you know, he really teaches me a lot in my own life and has helped me a lot in my own life - and to take all of that and somehow put them into the final piece of this four-part film, this series, to just explain and to share the heart of this man. I mean, he is a real hero in terms of being able to look at someone and say he has battled something greater than most of us ever will and has come out on the other side to tell the story.
GROSS: So Ken Burns' documentary was made before the city awarded $41 million to the five in the settlement of the five's lawsuit against the city. And also, when the Burns documentary was made, President Trump was not - he was just Donald Trump. He wasn't president yet.
So first, I want to ask you about Trump - what it's like to see the role that he played in being a megaphone for finding the Central Park Five guilty before they were even tried. You know, just, like, days after they were arrested and charged, he took out full-page ads in all of New York's four major newspapers saying bring back the death penalty; bring back our police. And this was an argument for the death penalty, basically for children. I mean, they were 14, 15 and 16 years old.
So I'm just interested in what it was like for you to see his role in the Central Park Five.
DUVERNAY: Yes, well, he played a very famous role in the case, you know, with taking out the ads. But ultimately, you know, he's not the story. And so I made the decision just to keep it very - you know, use him very sparingly and use him, you know, with his own words and his own footage. And we do it a couple of times, and there's a couple mentions.
You know, when you really research this time, he was one of many prominent voices that were out saying all kinds of crazy stuff. I mean, Pat Buchanan basically said that Korey Wise should be lynched. He should be hung in a public park. This is the climate of the time, and it was all seen as acceptable. And it was just all happening without much of a second thought - certainly not the thought about the humanity of these boys and their families.
So yeah, as we went through, just made decisions not to lean too much into Trump. That's one of the reasons why I wanted to change the name from Central Park Five to "When They See Us." I felt that the Central Park Five had become so kind of synonymous with him and him hashtagging it and talking about it, particularly around the documentary, as he slammed Ken Burns and tweeted against him, that I just really wanted to change the perspective in which we were thinking about this case.
GROSS: Can you tell us something about their lives now?
DUVERNAY: They are great people (laughter). I love them a lot. You know, they're really - I mean, I could cry just thinking about them all. They're good, good guys.
You know, three of them live in Atlanta. It's funny because, you know, Antron McCray is the first to leave. He goes to Atlanta. He finds this beautiful black oasis in Atlanta where you - it was, you know, predominantly black town with, you know, lots of people from a lot of different parts of the country. And, you know, there's a certain prosperity that happens in some parts of the city and lots of activity and things to do.
And so he goes out there by way of Baltimore and a couple other cities that he'd stopped in and lived along the way, and he finds Atlanta. And Raymond comes to visit. Raymond is the person he's closest to. They're really best friends. And Raymond comes to visit. And Raymond's like, yo, what is this? You've got grass in front of your house?
DUVERNAY: Wait, in the back, too? Oh, no. Wait, what? And so, shortly thereafter, Raymond picks up, and he moves to Atlanta. And then a few months after that, Yusef picks up and moves to Atlanta. So three of them live in Atlanta.
And then Kevin lives in New Jersey - just got married. When I first met him, he was not married. He was dating this really wonderful woman. And I remember him thinking maybe she's the one. And I'm like, is she the one? What's going to happen? And now he's married, and they live in New Jersey with their new daughter and his stepdaughter. And they are the cutest little family.
And then Korey is in Harlem. And he has tried to live other places and just loves Harlem. You know, when he moves out of the city, he longs for Harlem. I mean, he will drive back into Harlem just to be there. He goes to Al Sharpton's weekly meetings every Saturday in Harlem - community meetings. He's a real part of the community. I've walked the streets with Oprah before. It's similar.
DUVERNAY: It's - people love him. They respect him. They look out for him. They give him a lot of love there. And that's why he likes it. It's home.
So that's what the five of them are doing, you know, in different - in various places, you know, with their emotional reckoning. You know, but my hope has been - and I've seen it a bit - that the film is - been a therapy in some ways. They're able to talk about it.
But the main thing is now people know the story. Korey is really, really adamant that people know his story. He said to me early on, it's not the Central Park Five; it's four plus one. I had a different story, and he wanted people to know. And we did everything we could to tell his story. It's a very singular story. It's different from the other guys. And so just the fact that, now, when people walk up to him, they know him, they know his story, they respect what he went through, I think, is - I hope and I pray that it has a positive effect on him and on all of them.
GROSS: Ava DuVernay, thank you so much for talking with us.
DUVERNAY: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Ava DuVernay directed, co-wrote and produced the Netflix series "When They See Us," which is nominated for 16 Emmys, including two for DuVernay - best writing and best directing for a limited series. After we take a break, we'll hear from Michael K. Williams, who's nominated for an Emmy for his performance in "When They See Us" as Bobby McCray, the father of Antron McCray, one of the five wrongfully convicted boys. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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