The critically praised Ava DuVernay series “When They See Us” is being slammed by Linda Fairstein nearly two weeks after its initial release.
Fairstein — the Manhattan District Attorney’s office prosecutor depicted in the special — published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal Monday claiming the limited series about the Central Park Five case of 1989 “wrongly portrays them as totally innocent — and defames me in the process.” Her opinion piece is titled, “Netflix’s False Story of the Central Park Five.”
In the four-part series that stretches nearly five hours, Fairstein, portrayed by actress Felicity Huffman, leads the charges against the five accused men, despite a lack of evidence connecting them to the brutal rape and attack of jogger Trisha Meili.
At the time of the case involving Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise, Fairstein served as the head of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office sex crimes unit.
Raymond, Yusef, Kevin, Antron and Korey were among more than 30 youths between the ages of 13 and 17 in the park the night of the attack. All five of them were charged in connection with the case despite a lack of evidence, due to confession tapes they insist were coerced. They served between 6 and 13 years in prison and were exonerated of their crimes in 2002, when Matias Reyes confessed.
Fairstein says DuVernay’s television depiction of the trial is “so full of distortions and falsehoods" that it’s “an outright fabrication.”
Sticking by her claim that evidence did not prove the five had no involvement in the rape, she writes that the series fails to depict "the larger picture of that terrible night: a riot in the dark that resulted in the apprehension of more than 15 teenagers who set upon multiple victims."
She continues to explain that DuVernay paints her as a “bigot” and shows the police as “incompetent or worse.” In the series, she calls the boys “animals.”
Much of the first two episodes of "When They See Us" show harsh treatment of the boys while in police custody, including the withholding of food and water for an extended period of time. To this, Fairstein writes: “’When They See Us,’ repeatedly portrays the suspects as being held without food, deprived of their parents’ company and advice, and not even allowed to use the bathroom. If that had been true, surely they would have brought those issues up and prevailed in pretrial hearings on the voluntariness of their statements, as well as in their lawsuit against the city. They didn’t, because it never happened.”
Fairstein faced harsh criticism of her role in the case following the series’ release. After the hashtag #CancelLindaFairstein began trending on Twitter the weekend of the series’ release, Fairstein resigned from her posts on the boards of three nonprofits, Safe Horizon, God’s Love We Deliver and the Joyful Heart Foundation. She was also dropped by her book publisher on June 7.
The cast of the series and the Five Exonerated Men have spoken highly of DuVernay’s portrayal of the case.
While promoting the series last month, actor Marquis Rodriguez (young Raymond Santana, Jr.) told amNewYork he was given “a bunch of source material” from DuVernay before filming began. Like his co-stars, Rodriguez was also given the chance to sit down with the man he portrayed to discuss his experience. “I got to see all of the coerced confession tapes, Raymond specifically, all of the transcripts collected and things like that from the case,” Rodriguez said.
“I have to give credit to Ava. She delivered us this big packet of information when we arrived that was basically all the hard work of the research portion of an actor’s job that she’d done for us and said go,” said actor Joshua Jackson, who portrays Antron’s lawyer in the series.
All five central actors say they felt an immense responsibility to portray the case accurately. “It’s just so important to get this right," Caleel Harris, 16, added.
DuVernay addressed series backlash during the taping of Netflix’s “When They See Us Now” special with Oprah Winfrey. The special is set to air Wednesday at 10 p.m. on OWN and Netflix.
“I think that it’s important that people be held accountable,” said DuVernay. “And that accountability is happening in a way today that it did not happen for the real men 30 years ago. But 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. It’s not all about her."
DuVernay has not directly responded to Fairstein’s op-ed piece.