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AVA DuVERNAY - Her New Series Shows How The Criminal Justice System Robbed Five Boys of Their "Personhood"

Posted By Peggy Jo Abraham, Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Most everyone would agree that Ava DuVernay writes, directs and produces very important projects. Yet when you talk to this extraordinary talent, she won’t go so far as to call her subject matter “important.” DuVernay prefers to categorize her body of work as a reflection of what interests her, what she personally cares about. Entertaining audiences is not enough. She won’t, as she puts it, “spend time making things I don’t believe in.”


One thing DuVernay definitely believes in is candidly confronting a criminal justice system she feels has “disrupted black lives.” In contrast to what we see and read about in the news, her work personalizes the issues in a very intimate way.


For her latest project, a four-part miniseries on Netflix called When They See Us, DuVernay takes a shameful page out of history. She chronicles the lives of five young Black and Hispanic teens wrongfully convicted of raping a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. Although most people know of this story and how it ends, DuVernay delivers a compelling, compassionate portrait of who these boys actually were. She does that through the lens of their families—who, contrary to initial media reports—were very involved in their childrens’s lives. The crushing pain of watching mothers endure the agony of a criminal justice system that’s stacked against their boys in every way makes for a truly visceral viewing experience.


When They See Us is the third part of a triptych. DuVernay’s 2012 film Middle of Nowhere debuted at Sundance, where she became the first African American woman to win the Best Director prize. That movie centered on families of the incarcerated. Her documentary 13th took ideas about the criminal justice system and gave them historical, political and cultural context. DuVernay says When They See Us is a marriage of the two, in that it’s designed to speak about families and address the system as a whole.


While it is disturbing to focus on the social injustice so prevalent today, we can be grateful that this is what Ava DuVernay personally cares about. Through her heartfelt storytelling, she encourages us to face the problems and search for solutions, no matter how painful.


This is the 30th anniversary of the EVENTS you depict in your powerful new miniseries, When They See Us. Were you timing its release to coincide with this or had the project just been on your radar?

I really wanted to make the 30th anniversary. As a producer, it was challenging to try to hit that exact date based on when we began our work, but I did want to make sure that we came out this year and as close to the date as possible. So the moment when we dropped the trailer on the exact date of the actual assault in the park was a big triumph for me and for the men involved. They wanted to commemorate the day that their lives changed forever with a different event. They wanted to reclaim that date. And we did.


Can you talk a bit about the title?

We had been using the working title of Central Park Five throughout preproduction, principal photography and most of post. But I knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to change it. I feel like “Central Park Five” was the moniker that was given to them by the press, by powers that be, to group them together and in some ways strip them of their humanity. It’s used as a political term and it’s inflammatory. When you say that, people have all kinds of connotations or associations as to what it is and who they are or aren’t. And I wanted to make sure that this four-part film reclaimed their lives cinematically, and it does that from the very beginning when you hear the title. There’s a lot of brand equity in that first title, but I just felt so strongly that it wasn’t right for the story we were telling.


That’s so true. It is a story that DEALS WITH many aspects of these kids’ lives.

It’s representative of many parts of their lives and their families’ lives. For example, as a mother of non-Black boys, you may watch this and hopefully think it’s just an isolated story about the Central Park Five case. But this series is about family, about community, about personhood interrupted. This is about a lot of things in our culture beyond just that case.


It would have been easy to think these boys came from broken homes and really difficult situations. Yet all of them seem to have very strong familial bonds, which were portrayed in such a touching way.

I hope it speaks to that fact that whenever you see a black or a brown person being paraded across the news or being characterized in movies as criminal and as not a whole person, you are ignoring who they are. And ultimately you’re ignoring their community, their culture, their very personhood.

 

Ava DuVernay with Vera Farmiga, who portrays lead prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer


You were just a teenager at the time of the crime. But do you remember being very aware of the incident and the coverage?

Very aware, very aware. I wanted to go to UCLA to study broadcast journalism and ended up being an English Lit major, but with a real interest in news. But the reason why this case caught my attention was because the boys were very close to my age. And there was a word that I didn’t understand in the news called “wilding.” And I thought I was a hip teenager and was like, “Is this a new slang term that I don’t know?” So I called my cousin in New York and I said, “What’s wilding? Is this a New York thing? What does it mean?” And he said, “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a word that we use. I think they mean wilin’, wilin’ out,” which was slang at that time. It meant we’re just hanging out. The fact that “wilin’ out” became “wilding,” became “wolf pack,” became “animalistic criminals” really had an effect on me because for the first time, I realized the news can be incorrect, that this is not something I can blindly trust. And I really recall that moment, because I was so focused on pursuing news as a career at the time, so the case was really formative for me in that way.


Did the wronged men actually contribute to the show? Were you involved with them when you were writing it?

Yes. They were my guiding stars on this. I became very close to them, and we’re still very close. I interviewed them with their families, sat in their homes, broke bread and had meals with them over a four-year period. They were on the set quite a bit and literally there with their actors, particularly Korey Wise, who still lives in New York. The actor (Jharrel Jerome, who plays Wise) came to me and said, “Ava, can Korey come to set today? I have a tough scene.” He just wanted to feel his presence and be near him. So we worked very closely with them, the whole writers’ room. We brought them out to LA and they sat with the writers for several days.


So this story was truly their story?

Yes. I was adamant that this not be culled solely from press clippings and archives, that this was them finally being able to amplify their voices, which they had not been able to do. Even in their trial, they were defending against a lie. Even in their confession, they were coerced to say what they said. So you never really got the moment where they told you how they felt about what was happening, what was going on behind closed doors from their perspective.

 

DuVernay and Jharrel Jerome, who plays wrongly accused teen Korey Wise 

And what about the rape victim, jogger Trisha Meili? Did you have any contact with her?

I reached out to everyone depicted and said, “I’m telling a story. You’re going to be in it. And I would love to sit down with you to learn more about you and your experience.” And I sat down with everyone who wanted to, and I didn’t with the people who didn’t want to. She declined to be interviewed by me, so most of what I used came from her book—little things like what she would listen to on the radio or her jogging habits. The book was basically my guideline. And then I interviewed people who knew her and was able to get a little bit more.


I read that Matias Reyes, the real rapist, continued to commit crimes after the 1989 incident and that one of the accused men calls that the real tragedy—the one that’s never talked about. Is that true?

Yes, Reyes did go on to murder a woman and commit several other rapes, all of which he admitted to. But that could have been prevented if justice had been pursued, truly pursued, that night. He’s walking around the park in bloody clothes. The boys don’t know what they’re saying. They don’t know where they’re supposed to be. People are feeding them their “facts.” I mean, it’s clearly not them. And yet you have to solve this case, and it’s a big media storm, and there are political objectives, and you let the real guy go back into society to rape and kill more people. So that’s what happened.


I remember Trump’s connection to the case—hiS calling publicly for the return of the death penalty. Was there any hesitation on your part about using the Trump footage now that he’s President?

No. It was an early decision that I made, and there was a lot of thought about how to handle him. But if I stay true to my kind-of North Star, which is to tell the story of the men, that allowed me not to veer off into other things. You could easily have had someone playing Trump and had a whole part of the story around that. But I made the decision at the beginning that this needed to be told through the boys’ perspectives and through their families’ perspectives. At the time they weren’t really aware of Trump. They’re young black boys, and all they thought was he was a rich guy in New York, which is all he was. And they were going through their own pain and didn’t really understand the depth of what calling for the death penalty meant for them.


When you think about wrongful convictions and the killings of young blacks, you realize they’re still so prevalent today. In some ways, it feels like not much has changed. In your opinion, what’s missing? What will it take to tackle these issues?

Well, we’re just putting Band-Aids on a systemic problem. So until you change the system, nothing is really going to change. We need to look at the criminal justice system in this country and rebuild it. We need to look at what prisons were historically meant to do, which was to create a substitute for slavery. We need to look at the ways in which we’re stripping rights from people who are incarcerated. We need to look at the fact that 93% of the people who are currently in jail never had a trial. Yet we say we live in a just country.


So I feel like everything is a Band-Aid until there’s a real interrogation and a dismantling and rebuilding of the criminal justice system in this country. And that is a long shot, because too many people benefit from it.

 


DuVernay directs a courtroom scene from When They See Us

You clearly demonstrated in your documentary, 13th, how so many people profit from the incarceration process. AND wow, 93% of inmates never went to trial. That’s a staggering statistic.

That’s because part of the whole mechanism of our criminal justice system is pleading. You take the plea. You take the deal. That’s there because you don’t want everyone going to trial. If everyone went to trial, it would burden the system, and you wouldn’t be able to get through all the cases. But this creates an imbalance and a bias. People who can’t properly defend themselves end up in jail.


You have your finger on the pulse of so many social and political issues. Why, as a filmmaker, do you feel it’s important to speak out in this way?

I don’t feel like that has to be the case for anyone else. But for me, the stories that I want to tell and that I want to put out in the world with my name on, I want them to do more. So that’s how I choose what I’m doing. And if what it does is get people to think about themselves and think about motherhood or family or the criminal justice system, or whatever, that’s just a cherry on top.


You’ve worked a lot with Oprah. You have an existing show on OWN TV, a new anthology series called Cherish the Day, and she’s a producer on When They See Us. Is it your similar sensibilities that make for an easy collaboration? What is that connection with her?

We have the same feeling about the work—that art can be transformative, that art can contribute to the culture beyond entrainment, that it can also help shape identity ideas and empathy. And so that core piece of the puzzle is a big connection that we have. She’s a wonderful, creative producer. She can read a script and tell me “This works,” “You lost me here,” “I cried here,” “What do you think about this?” And in terms of casting, she has a great sense of people. She’s interviewed more people than anyone else, so she really can look in someone’s eyes and say, “I can feel them” or, “This is a person I can see that they’re going to be able to portray.” And she’s just a great sounding board in that way.


you pay it forward in many ways. Are you still working with the Evolve Fund, the partnership between the city of LA and the entertainment industry?

Yes I am, through Array Alliance, a nonprofit. Array is a series of companies  I’ve had over the last 10 years. Through the nonprofit, we’re involved with a lot of educational initiatives to develop audience around work by women and people of color. We joined forces with the mayor’s office and the Evolve Fund to create curriculum and programming for high school and college students to help them enter our industry and transform it from the ground up. So that was an initiative, and I was in the inaugural program that we launched last year. I’m really excited about its success and its future.


WHEN THEY SEE US  from THE PRODUCING TEAM

Producing When They See Us was a challenge on many levels. Until now, no one has ever heard the story from the perspective of the five boys who were wrongly accused. And while the rape and trial received a huge amount of media coverage—as producer Jonathan King points out—“The subsequent exoneration got much less attention, to the point that so many people still don’t know the truth.” We spoke to three of the series’ executive producers about what they hope audiences will take away from the emotional drama.


Berry Welsh

There was a moment in prep where Jane, Jonathan and I were sitting with Ava in her office, and Jonathan said something that became a kind of mantra for the show: “When they say ‘boys will be boys,’ they aren’t talking about these boys.” It was an observation about the loss of innocence that touches on every part of the series. You become so emotionally invested in the boys and their families, but their stories also challenge you to think beyond what you know as your own experience.


Jonathan King

One of the most important ideas When They See Us humanizes is that incarceration affects families and communities, not just the person doing time. And the effects don’t stop upon release. A criminal record stays with a person and impacts their ability to restart their life after release. It’s especially pernicious when a person has been wrongfully convicted, but it applies to all people caught up in the system.


Jane Rosenthal

There are human consequences to the system’s failures, and that hasn’t changed. The power of storytelling is that we can take a dark part of our history, and Ava’s vision turns it into something ultimately uplifting that can bring about social change. The benefit of having a creative partner like Netflix is that we can reach the largest possible audience and amplify the message.

 

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