Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us premiered on Netflix less than a month ago and ever since, it’s taken the world by storm.
The series, which has now been named the most watched show on Netflix, tells the events of the 1989 Central Park jogger case and delves into the lives of the young boys, known as the Central Park Five, who were wrongly convicted of the rape and assault of Trisha Meili.
On Wednesday evening, Oprah sat down with the men — now renamed the “Exonerated Five” — Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson. She also chatted with the cast of When They See Us and director Ava DuVernay. (Read: Ava DuVernay On The Central Park Five: ‘They’re Still Broken’)
Oprah wasted no time in bringing up the elephant in the room, former Prosecutor Linda Fairstein. She mentioned Fairstein’s recent Daily Beast interview in which she called When They See Us “a basket of lies.” But the shade was real when Winfrey mentioned that karma has found Fairstein.
Since the show aired, Fairstein has stepped down from numerous organizations where she served as a board member and, most recently, she was dropped by her publishers Dutton and Little, Brown. (Read: Central Park Five Prosecutor Linda Fairstein Says She Did Nothing Wrong, Takes No Responsibility)
When asked what she thought about the whole thing, Ava had the perfect answer:
“I think that it’s important that people be held accountable. But I think that it would be a tragedy if this story and the telling of it came down to one woman being punished for what she did because it’s not about her. It’s not all about her. She is part of a system that’s not broken, it was built to be this way. It was built to oppress, it was built to control, it was built to shape our culture in a specific way that kept some people here and some people here.”
“But the real thing that we are all trying to do, all the artists who collaborate with me…our real goal is to be able to say, ‘Go America. Let’s do this. Let’s change this.’ You can’t change what you don’t know, so we came together to show you what you may not know. Now that you know, what will you do? How will you change this?”
After speaking with Ava, Oprah turned her attention to the actors, particularly Jharrel Jerome who portrayed Korey Wise, the only member of the group who was tried as an adult and subsequently spent most of his sentence in solitary confinement in maximum security prisons.
Jerome had the difficult task of showing Wise as both a 16-year-old and 30-year-old. Anyone who has seen When They See Us can attest to what a pivotal and emotional performance it was.
The 21-year- old Bronx native said that this was one of the most difficult roles ever had. He told Oprah,
“Once I found the voice, it went down into the body and into the legs. It was so weird. It was the first time I stepped out of my body and into someone else’s.”
Next up were the Exonerated Five.
Oprah delved right in, asking the men,
“On April 18, 1989, twenty-four hours before this whole nightmare began, what were your hopes, your dreams? How would your family, your friends, your teachers describe you? Who were you?”
Yusef told her,
“I think about that often because, for me, my whole life changed. I went from riding skateboards, probably climbing trees. Those memories kind of stayed with me throughout prison. And it was difficult to digest that.”
Oprah brought Fairstein up again and asked the men if they blame her for ruining their lives.
Raymond was quick to respond and told her,
“The moment the DNA comes back and it doesn’t match this was her chance to take a step back and re-evaluate. That’s a pivotal moment, and she had the power to do the right thing and she fumbled.”
But perhaps the most gut-wrenching moment of the night came when Antron revealed that, after all this time, he’s still having difficulty moving on with his life. He explained,
“I’m damaged. I need help. I know it, but, um, I just try to keep myself busy. The system broke a lot of things in me that can’t be fixed. My wife asked me to go see a therapist, but I keep refusing.”
He also recently lost his mother right before the film came out. And unlike in the show, he never reconciled with his father.
“I said before, he’s a coward. I have six kids: four boys, two girls, I couldn’t imagine doing that to my son. I hate him. My life is ruined.”
In her closing question, Oprah asked the cast what their hopes were for the future.
Ava said that she hoped the men wouldn’t have to tell their story anymore, that they could finally move on with their lives.
“It’s been told and you can live your lives knowing that you won. We believe you and we see you.”
If you want to get involved in criminal justice reform and help countless others who have been wrongfully convicted, please check out the Innocence Project.