"The world knew them as just a derogatory headline for decades ... But from this day forward we call them the Exonerated Five, not the Central Park Five," Oprah Winfrey said during her hour-long interview special Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now. The special, currently airing on Netflix, features When They See Us writer/director Ava DuVernay, cast members, and the five men who were wrongfully imprisoned in a 1989 rape case.
While the series has been a massive success and led to widespread reflection on the failings of the justice system, it was clear from the Winfrey special that the falsely accused men still visibly struggle with the traumas they endured. In one of the biggest tear-jerking moments, one of the exonerated men, Antron McCray, said that he still hasn't forgiven his now-dead father (played by Michael K. Williams in the Netflix series) for telling him to plead guilty after the latter was allegedly pressured to do so by the police. ("I hate him. My life is ruined," McCray said.) McCray, whose mother also died recently, was the most visibly emotional of the five as he explained that while he's still struggling with all that has happened to him, he doesn't believe therapy would help.
While the men seemed to all agree that nothing (including the $41 million settlement they were awarded from New York City) will truly remedy the years they lost to the case and their incarceration, they still saw the series as an important tool to fight for future systemic change. "I'm so happy and ecstatic that we can start the conversation now and make sure there will never be another Central Park Five," Kevin Richardson, one of the five men, said.
DuVernay also focused the conversation on justice system reform when Winfrey asked for her opinion on the avalanche of criticism and consequences now befalling former prosecutor Linda Fairstein, who oversaw the investigation. "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," DuVernay said. "She is a part of a system that's not broken. It was built to be this way… Our real goal is to be able to say, 'Go America.' Let's do this. Let's change this. And you can't change what you don't know. So we came together to show you what you may not know."
Any larger-scale response to the film has yet to come, but some of the men Oprah now calls the Exonerated Five seem hopeful that it is on the horizon. "Now the world is getting an opportunity to see not only what we went through, but also see that we survived," Yusef Salaam said. "They took diamonds and threw [them] in the dirt … and when they picked us up we were still diamonds, still unbreakable, still strong. I think for young people, the future generations that are going to absolutely change this system, that's what gives me hope."
Oprah Winfrey Presents: When They See Us Now is currently streaming on Netflix and the OWN Network.
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