DuVernay: ‘Central Park Five’ Netflix Series a Call to Action

Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam and Antron McCray were all teenagers on April 19, 1989, when a 28-year-old white woman was beaten and raped while jogging after hours in New York City’s historic Central Park.

Linda Fairstein, who oversaw the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan district attorney’s office at the time, prosecuted and landed convictions against the five youth — four African-American and one Hispanic, all between ages 14-16. The “Central Park Five” would each spend between five and 15 years in prison.

“I want to hate these murderers and I always will. I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them,” said Donald Trump, who at the time was a New York real estate mogul who paid $85,000 for full-page ads in four city newspapers calling for the death penalty in the case.

But then convicted serial rapist Matias Reyes admitted in 2002 serving time on other charges that he alone assaulted and raped investment banker Trisha Meili, and the five youths’ convictions were ultimately vacated. But even with the admission and subsequent revelations that Fairstein coerced the boys into confessing despite having no DNA evidence linking them to the crime, Trump never apologized.

Today, 20 years after the case gripped the nation, renowned filmmaker Ava DuVernay has directed the new Netflix series “When They See Us,” which tells the young men’s story of justice delayed.

The series “is a love letter to these men, whose childhoods were stolen by this harrowing case,” DuVernay said in an email. “It is also a love letter to the millions of boys and girls of color who are presumed guilty on sight. My goal is to shed light on the inequities and the bias that makes a case like this possible.”

In the same way so many men of color have been convicted, executed and lynched for crimes they didn’t commit, the Netflix series shows how the prosecutor built a case around the five youths prematurely classified as guilty, rather than engaging in a full-scale investigation.

“We explore a travesty of justice laid bare,” DuVernay said. “We chronicle a broken system fueled by politics, profit and inaction. But we can and should take action.”

In addition to making the film, DuVernay is part of the group Color of Change and its “Winning Justice” campaign, which has been rallying people of color in communities across the country to come together and set the agenda for a new wave of prosecutors.

“And in a dozen cities, thanks to many of you, we now have prosecutors being measured by their commitment to justice rather than by how many people they put in prison,” she said.

“I’m hoping you’ll watch ‘When They See Us’ and be moved to discuss and interrogate the current criminal system of injustice,” DuVernay said. “But I also hope you don’t stop there. Here is how you can make your voice heard: Visit Winning Justice to join campaigns to stop over-policing and racial profiling in our communities to reform our bail system so people’s freedom is not determined by how much they can pay for it; to treat children in the system like children and not criminals to hold prosecutors accountable for wrongful convictions.”

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Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the Greater Washington Area. Hamil has chronicled the Million Man March, the Clinton White House, the September 11 attack, the sniper attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the campaign of President Barack Obama and many other people and events. Hamil is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of the Washington Post where he writes a range of stories, shoots photos and produces videos for the print and online editions of the Post. In addition, he is often called upon to report on crime, natural disasters and other breaking issues. In 2006 Harris was part of a team of reporters that published the series “Being a Black Man.” He was also the reporter on the video project that accompanied the series that won two Emmy Awards, the Casey Medal and the Peabody Award. Hamil has lectured at Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, the American University, the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia. He also lectures several times a year to interns during their semester in the District as part of their matriculation at the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities.

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