By Christianna Silva
“I think as long as stories like this are still happening we have to examine why,” Marquis Rodriguez, who plays young Raymond Santana in the new Netflix limited series When They See Us, told MTV News on a recent morning in May. “We have to look to our past to figure out how we can change the system in which these sorts of things happen constantly. We have to address why that's the case, and why it's the case disproportionately for people of color.”
“Stories like this” are stories like When They See Us, which was created, co-written, and directed by Ava DuVernay. The four-part series is a dramatized retelling of the infamous case of the five black and brown boys from Harlem — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise — who became known as the Central Park Five. In 1989, they were coerced into confessing to a crime they did not commit — the assault and rape of Trisha Meili, a white woman who had been jogging in Central Park on April 19 of that year. The evidence did not add up, and DNA evidence found at the scene of the crime did not match any of the five boys. Nevertheless, a jury found them guilty; 16-year-old Korey was tried and sentenced as an adult.
The trailer alone is an infuriating look at at a court system that vilified five innocent children, but we also know those boys aren’t alone in their experience. According to the NAACP, men of color are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white men – and, often times, they’re innocent.
“I had thought that if you're innocent then you don't go to jail,” actor Caleel Harris, who plays Antron McCray, told MTV News. “But I mean, unfortunately realizing how this world works today, it's not like that.”
The stats back him up: Black men are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder and three times more likely to be wrongly convicted of sexual assault as compared to white people, according to the Innocence Project. Thirty years ago, that proliferating bias targeted the five boys who were also vilified by the media and a pre-presidential Donald Trump, all because they happened to be at the park that night with a group of about 30 to 40 other people. Each would go on to serve a number of years in either juvenile detention or prison; it was only after another man came forward admitting guilt that they were exonerated of the crime. They later sued the city of New York for wrongful imprisonment, and reached a settlement of $41 million.
It’s important to remember that these five people were just kids at the time of their notoriously-mishandled trial, and that many minority kids grow up with the knowledge that they too could be unfairly targeted or judged by people in power. According to the Washington Post, Black children are 18 more times likely to be tried as adults than are white children, and many Black parents have “the talk” about how to interact with the police when their children are young. Kids of color, and especially Black kids, just aren’t allowed to be kids in the U.S. in the same way white kids are.
“The frustrating thing about that is children of color are holding that weight all the time,” Rodriguez said. “So it's our responsibility to be the most palatable versions of ourselves. It's our responsibility to make sure we're not a part of every activity that we want to be a part of because of the consequences we might suffer even having done absolutely nothing [wrong]. Who gets to be a kid in this country? Kids that look like us?”
“People don't perceive kids of color as kids,” When They See Us’s Asante Blackk, who plays Kevin Richardson, told MTV News. “They see them as grown men, really, or as grown women. And it shouldn't be that way. [We] should be able to live our lives as kids — to be able to explore the world, be able to make mistakes, and not have the world have such a glare at us all the time.”
Thirty years ago, five boys between the ages of 14 and 16 years old had their childhoods taken away from them. Now, the actors who played them want viewers to remember who they were beyond the smear campaign and trial that branded them as villians instead of victims — and to ensure that such profiling no longer happens to Black and brown boys across the country.
“They were good, honest kids with dreams and aspirations just like many of the youth that will be watching and their lives — or their youth – was taken right from them due to the color of their skin,” actor Ethan Herisse, who plays Yusef Salaam, told MTV News. “So to those that are naive, it's a harsh lesson and it's a very emotional and hard-to-watch series, [but it’s also a] way to take in that lesson.”
“I pray that this creates conversation,” Harris added, “and it starts a talk that leads to change.”