Ava Duvernay was just a teenager when five young Black boys, from Harlem, were arrested and convicted for the rape of a white woman in Central Park on the night of April 19, 1989. So when Raymond Santana, one of the “Central Park 5” sent her a wishful tweet about bringing the Central Park 5 story to the screen, “it meant a lot” to her, she revealed to NPR.
Ava and Netflix’s When They See Us chronicles the events of the Central Park Five case that captivated the nation. The four-part series will span 25 years, taking on the wrongful conviction of the boys, as well as highlight their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.
Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Jr., Kevin Richardson and Korey Wise were beaten upon arrest, forced into making false confessions and convicted of a crime they did not commit. They served between seven and 13 years in prison and were later exonerated only to have a convicted murderer, who was serving a life sentence, eventually confess to the crime.
Their story is perfectly aligned with Duvernay’s mission to raise awareness around the injustices of the prison industrial system, which she explored in her critically acclaimed documentary the 13th.
When They See Us stars a stellar cast Michael K. Williams, John Leguizamo, Niecy Nash and Blair Underwood, who opened up to us about this role in the series.
“My character’s name is Robert Burns and I play the defense attorney to one of the, no longer Central Park 5, the Exonerated 5,” he says making a clear distinction.
Burns comes into action in the second hour of the four-hour series. According to Underwood, his character isn’t necessarily “a huge part” of the limited series. Albiet small, the emotional toll of a role like this can’t be underestimated.
“Ava did something I’ve never seen on any project I’ve done. She made a grief counselor available to everyone on the set,” Underwood revealed in a candid conversation. “They were up and running by the time I came to set and I’d get e-mails from production that would say this is a very tough material. It’s emotional and it dredges up so much in all of us. Especially the young boys recreating these emotions. To be able to say here’s the person to contact if you need any grief counseling is amazing. It’s apart of what we do. It’s our job as actors to bring those emotions to the forefront and let it manifest. People deal with it different ways.”
Underwood said he took several walks to connect with nature after filming. “It’s very deep themes. The thing with this story is there is no distance from history to separate then and now. There’s 30 years logistically but emotionally, how far we’ve come? Theres very little daylight.”
When They See Us is on Netflix now.