TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Ava DuVernay has dramatized the story of the Central Park Five in the new four-part Netflix series "When They See Us," which she produced, directed and co-wrote. The Central Park Five was the name given to 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, you know, was what everyone was talking about at one point.
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, you know, gang-raping women. Wiling out is hanging out, you know, kind of like being free for the night and, like, just, you know, acting, you know, carefree. And I always have trouble when I try to translate urban slang into (laughter) something else, but it is - 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 wolf pack 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're - you know, 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 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. And he was the first to leave New York City. And he - you know, he's been really deliberate about wanting to separate himself from that story.
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 is wanting to share it. He's wanting to speak his truth, and he understands that although it's uncomfortable for him, it's helping other people. As far as the other men, Yusef was very, you know, 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 got to know me. And he got to know my co-writers and that he felt comfortable in sitting down with us and telling us stories. We - 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 the men 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: I could see why after being disbelieved for so many years, that some of the five men would feel uncomfortable having to go through the process of telling their story again.
DUVERNAY: Yeah. No, definitely. That kind of - because their storytelling had happened all in an institutional framework, right? They're telling it in a precinct and not being believed. The story's being contorted and contrived and manufactured, and they're being asked to insert details. And so this coercion is then taped, and now that becomes their story. They have to tell it to lawyers and in court. You know, their story was always on pieces of legal documents and instruments of the law that felt impersonal. And so part of what we tried to do is to make sure that they felt that this was a different kind of storytelling that they were in charge of, that they could finally assert their voices and talk about whatever they wanted. I mean, this was a four-year process, so there were a lot of stories that had nothing to do with the particulars of the case, which is kind of the only story that people wanted to know, and really got into who they were as people and how the case affected them and their families to this day.
GROSS: So from having talked to the five men, give us an example of one of the stories that one of them told you about why they agreed to a confession that was not true, why they agreed to implicate themselves by saying that they did things that they didn't do.
DUVERNAY: I don't know. I take issue with the word agreed. I mean, we're talking about minors. We're talking about minors who are in rooms alone with police officers who are aggressive, who have guns on their belts and badges, who were told to mind and to respect and to follow orders from.
It gets under my skin when people ask, why? Why would they do that? Why would you say something you wouldn't do? That's even Linda Fairstein - why - well, they said it. They did it. And you - it strips away the real dynamics of that room, which is what I tried to show in the piece.
You know, you know how easily a child can be manipulated. You know how easily a child, you know, can be made to be afraid. And these authority figures did that to these boys. And so, you know, the answer to the question of, how did they agree, is, you know - I don't know if there was ever an agreement. I think that it was a - no disrespect to you - but it is a - it was a manipulation.
GROSS: So point accepted. But 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, and details were inserted into the story through repetition. It's hard to explain, so that's why I wanted to show it...
GROSS: You mean they were prompted to say things that they added?
DUVERNAY: They were - the 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.
Many of the tactics that they described to us are in the piece. And it - when it comes alive - and you actually see it being done and see boys trying to kind of pick up details 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.
They lied about each other as part of these coerced confessions. And they named the names of the other young men who were in the five. How did they realize they had lied about each other and had incriminated each other? - 'cause they didn't even all know each other.
DUVERNAY: Right. Only two of the five knew each other. And it wasn't until four of them were put in a cell together at the end of the interrogation period, after they'd all - or four of the five had been taped, did they find themselves in a room together. And then they began to introduce themselves to one another.
So the four boys in that room did not know each other. It was Yusef, Kevin, Antron and Raymond. And they started to talk and started to tell each other what they said and how they'd heard each other's names. And, you know, basically, the stories that they told me, all separately, we word for word recreate in the film.
You know, the part that always kind of destroys me in watching that is, these boys were made to be a wolf pack - you know, wilding gang - in the news at the very same time that they're in a room just meeting each other. And so, you know, they're - the revelation of what they had done and incriminating one another through being fed each other's names by police, you know, came to light when they were all together in a cell.
GROSS: 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.
You know, 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, you know? So he never intended to lie again because it only got him in, you know - in what he calls death. You know, he says that he died in that prison many times, and that this time now feels like life after death. And sometimes, he doesn't even know if he's asleep or awake because it's so surreal.
And so, yeah, you know, the - you know, they never wavered. They never lied again after they all connected. They never went back on their word.
GROSS: So Linda Fairstein, who was the head of the New York DA's sex crimes unit, is depicted in your film as, like, bending the truth in order to convict the five. And she - after your series came out, she resigned from several boards of directors, including the board of Vassar, her alma mater. She was dropped by her book publisher and dropped by her agent. Oh, and I should say Elizabeth Lederer, the lead prosecutor in the case - she resigned after your series from her position as an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University Law School.
Do you think that those repercussions were a result of new information that you uncovered, or do you think they were a result of just making what was already known more visible by dramatizing it and getting a big reaction, a big response as a result?
DUVERNAY: No. I mean, everything that's in the piece is public record and is out there. It'd been - it had been told before by journalists in books, in articles, in documentary, in podcasts. I mean, the story had been told. You know, the power of Netflix to drop it in 190 countries and put it right in people's homes and, you know, to be able to watch it through dramatization that feels very real and not like news is just the way that some people empathize more with stories like this. But there was nothing new that hadn't been said or reported previously.
GROSS: What was your reaction to Linda Fairstein having, you know - like, resigning from Vassar and being dropped by her publisher and her agent?
DUVERNAY: I don't think I had the reaction that most people thought I would have. I mean, it was just information. It didn't really elicit any kind of big emotion. I mean, I certainly feel like people should be held accountable, and she is. And, you know, I mean, that's it. My focus is so much on the men and my focus is so much on trying to illuminate the real insidious nature of the American criminal justice system that, for me, that piece of it is - it might feel sexy and get headlines, but it's really just not my focus. So yeah, it was information. It was kind of duly noted.
GROSS: My guest is Ava DuVernay. She produced, directed and co-wrote the new Netflix series "When They See Us," which dramatizes the stories of the Central Park Five. We'll hear more after a break, and film critic Justin Chang will review "Toy Story 4." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ava DuVernay, who produced, directed and co-wrote the new Netflix series, "When They See Us," which dramatizes the stories of the Central Park Five, the five boys, aged 14 to 16, who were accused and convicted of raping a woman who was jogging in Central Park in 1989. Their convictions were based on coerced confessions. In 2002, the real rapist confessed to the crime, and his DNA matched what was on the victim's body. After collectively serving more than three decades in prison, the five had their convictions vacated. They sued the city of New York and, in 2014, won a collective settlement of $41 million.
One of the things you did on the set was have a counselor on the set available in case, like, people got really emotional and just, like, needed to talk with someone, at least that was my understanding of it. Were people who were making the movie triggered by some of the stories that they were telling?
DUVERNAY: The counselors weren't on set; there was a hotline, a counseling hotline. We shoot at all times of the day and night, depending on what the scene is. And so at any point, if someone wanted to - in the privacy of their own home, when they went home, driving home, coming into set, while on set - wanted to speak with someone, wanted to dissect the work that they were doing or just talk and be heard, there was a 24-hour counselling hotline that was put together.
GROSS: Were people who were making the movie triggered by some of the stories that they were telling?
DUVERNAY: A lot of people shared how they felt, shared what they were learning. The crew that's, you know, physically on set while the film is being shot during principal photography through to the colorist, you know, and the composer - people who are working with the film and the material that we shoot after the set is broken down - you know, sound designers. At different points in the process of making it, there were a lot of tears, people wanting to share their story, their story of times where they might have been biased against black men and brown men and boys and girls, times when they were the victim of bias, had run-ins with the law.
One of the actors, Josh Jackson, talks about, you know, his kind of privilege as a young white kid who went out and was wilding out or, you know, out drunk or out just being stupid, as boys do when they're young, and having the privilege of coming home every night without, you know, ever getting into any really serious trouble for that kind of, you know, adolescent behavior. And so there were a lot of stories that I heard throughout the process of making it. And you know, those have only been amplified by the stories of people - that people were sharing once they see it.
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: Yeah, youth was stolen from him. And so yeah, I mean he's definitely affected by all of that. And you know, he's 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 I - 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.
Like, I was speaking with a journalist the other day who had really talked to him for about an hour. And he said that, you know, she blew him away with his insights into human nature and survival and struggle and the criminal justice system. And it just - you know, it requires a patience that most people don't have. And so, you know, I tried to take all of my conversations with Korey, which was 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, there 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. I mean, 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, I 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.
And so he was really one of the big reasons why I changed the title and just tried to be - really consider how much time, how much real estate within this film does he deserve, does he get. I mean, when I talked to the guys, they really don't remember him at that time, you know, that - which really surprised me during my interviews with them over the course of the years. They - their parents do - did - very much so. But to, you know, 14, 15, 16-year-old boys who are having to leave their bedrooms and their homes and go to juvenile detention or, in Korey's case, straight to Rikers, they were not thinking about, you know, the guy who had a bunch of gold buildings in New York City at the time.
So in telling the story from their point of view and being true to that, he just didn't figure in. He didn't loom large in their personal narrative until much later when he came out against them as they were released and the convictions were vacated and the documentary came out. That's when they started to lean into him. But at the time, you know, he didn't figure into their days too much.
GROSS: 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 Central Park Five. We recorded our interview Monday. Yesterday, when President Trump was asked about the case, he said, they admitted their guilt. He didn't acknowledge those admissions were made in coerced confessions.
We'll hear more of my interview with Ava DuVernay after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ava DuVernay. She directed the film "Selma" and the documentary the "13th" about racial injustice in the justice system. Her new, four-part Netflix series "When They See Us" dramatizes the story of the Central Park Five.
I think it was hard for the five men after they got out of prison. Four of them got out before the convictions were vacated. Korey got out after they were vacated. I think it was hard for them to find their place in the world and make a living. You know, there's a lot stacked against you when you've been - when you spent years in prison and when you were named in this notorious case, even if you're exonerated, even if the convictions are vacated.
But when the city finally awarded a settlement - a total for all of them - you know, a combined total of $41 million - did the money - was the money helpful? I know the money can't - as they've all pointed out, the money can't buy back the years of their life that were taken away. The money can't buy the - buy back the youth that they were robbed of, but it's better to have money than not. So was the money helpful?
You know, one of the things Korey did with it was contribute to an innocence project and to working on the subject of false confessions. But can you talk a little bit about the settlement and, you know, ways in which it changed their lives, if it did?
DUVERNAY: Generally, money is helpful when you don't have it. So, you know, Kevin Richardson is working the night shift as a janitor at a convalescent home, making minimum wage and unable to pay his rent. You know, Raymond Santana, you know, Antron - you know, these guys are working, you know, what people call manual labor, under-the-table jobs, you know, where the jobs that you can get when you are formerly incarcerated and people don't care that you've been formerly incarcerated - those jobs are unfortunately few and far between.
So they are doing, you know, forklift, or they're doing, you know, construction or they're doing things where they're getting kind of paid on the side, or they're working in places - on the jobs that people who have more options don't want to do.
So at any point, if anyone gives you any money, your life changes. And certainly, you know, theirs did. When you are equating - it's kind of like the idea that poverty is you with less money. That's not really what poverty is. You know, poverty is being ensnared within a system where, at every turn, you cannot move. You do not have the resources to climb out of where you live, you know, your neighborhood, where you work, your health care, your - like, this is the reality for formerly incarcerated people.
And so when you put some money on that, you know, it certainly changes some things, but a lot stays the same and - you know, certainly when you're dealing with a kind of emotional trauma and the family - the violence to the family structure that was done. You know, they've all said they'd give the money back to just grow up as they were and live and become whatever they were going to be before this happened.
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, you know, 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, you know, 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, and 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 produced, directed and co-wrote the four-part Netflix series "When They See Us."
After we take a short break, film critic Justin Chang will review "Toy Story 4." This is FRESH AIR.
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