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Laughter, Tears At Oprah Winfrey-Hosted Panel On Ava DuVernay’s ‘When They See Us’

By Diane Haithman

June 9, 2019

There was plenty of laughter as well as a lot of tears at Raleigh Studios on Sunday night at a screening of the first episode of Ava DuVernay’s limited series When They See Us, a dramatization of the real-life events of surrounding the wrongful conviction and eventual exoneration of the so-called Central Park 5.

Presented by Netflix and Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, the screening was followed by a conversation with DuVernay and the cast of the series, as well as a panel discussion with the real-life men unjustly accused of raping a jogger in Central Park 30 years ago while they were still young teenagers. The event was part of Netflix’s FYSEE series (a play on FYC “For Your Consideration”) for an audience that included many active TV Academy members.

Oh yes, lest we forget, the evening was hosted by Winfrey and recorded to air immediately following the Season 4 premiere of DuVernay’s OWN drama series Queen Sugar at 9 p.m. Wednesday.

When They See Us, which premiered May 31 in 190 countries, was set in motion by a tweet to DuVernay from one of the wrongly accused men, Raymond Santana, four years ago. At first, the series had the working title Central Park 5, but DuVernay said the name had become a media cliché that dehumanized the accused. Also, “It felt like medicine, and this isn’t medicine,” she said tonight. Cast and producers said they prefer to call the group the Exonerated 5.

The series is already garnering plenty of Emmy buzz and Winfrey wasn’t above jumping into early competition for the award. “(This is an) FYSEE showcase, For Your Consideration,” she said during her introduction. “We’re hoping it’s more than a consideration. It deserves more than a consideration.”

Winfrey and DuVernay delighted in sharing the news that the prosecuting attorney in the case, Linda Fairstein, now 72, called the production “a basket of lies” in an interview with the Daily Beast. Her detractors have been giving Fairstein plenty of heat on social media (#cancellindafairstein) since the series premiered, and the prosecutor-turned-novelist has, in fact, had a publishing relationship canceled by Dutton.

“I think it’s important that people are accountable,” DuVernay said. She added that a discriminatory criminal justice system is “not broken, it was built to be that way…let’s change this.  You can’t change what you don’t know. Now you know. What will you do?”

Winfrey spend the first part of the evening talking to some members of the production’s large cast, but the most compelling words came from the real-life five — Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam and Antron McCray — who appeared together after the actors had left the stage. Most of them expressed some bitterness about their lost youth but also hope for the future. The one exception was McCray, who broke into tears at several points during the discussion and described himself as being broken in a way that “can’t be fixed.”

Winfrey pressed him by asking whether seeing the film had been cathartic or had begun the healing process as it had for the others.

“No, ma’am,” McCray said. “Not for me, ma’am.  I appreciate it, though.”