Following scrutiny surrounding the accuracy of Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us," it was only fitting for Oprah Winfrey to remind viewers of the creative depths the cast went to when embodying the families involved in the Central Park Five case.
The series that details the case of the New York men dubbed the Central Park Five was highly praised by critics and viewers in the weeks after its debut — despite being called an “outright fabrication” by Linda Fairstein, who prosecuted the case
During the taping of Winfrey’s “When They See Us Now” panel chat with the series cast and the Exonerated Five, DuVernay indirectly responded to her comments, saying the story “is not about her.”
“Now” wasn’t about her, either.
Instead of lingering on the topic, Winfrey swiftly moved the conversation to the cast, who shared the deep connections they made with their real, off-screen counterparts — Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray and Korey Wise — and the journeys they went on to most accurately tell their stories.
The most emotional moment of the cast discussion came when actor Jharrel Jerome — whose performance was described as “gutting” by Oprah — explained what it was like to play Korey Wise.
“I’m trying not to cry right now. Thank you, Oprah, so much,” Jerome, 21, of the Bronx, said. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done … I could never be Korey Wise. No one could ever be Korey Wise and fill those shoes. I just did my best to embody him and that’s my bottom line.”
Jerome was the only actor to portray both the younger and adult versions of one of the Five. He was seated next to Asante Blackk (young Kevin Richardson), Caleel Harris (young Antron McCray), Marquis Rodriguez (young Raymond Santana Jr.) and Ethan Herisse (young Yusef Salaam).
Though Winfrey praised all of their performances, it’s Jerome’s that earned critical praise. He leads much of the fourth episode, which depicts Wise’s experience in solitary confinement.
Korey Wise was sentenced to the longest term of the Five, and was the only one who served his full term in adult prisons. While much of the series focused on the alleged mistreatment of the boys at the hands of law enforcement, DuVernay told Winfrey it was important to keep Wise’s story separate.
“He went directly into Rikers [at] 16 years old,” DuVernay said. “I sat with him and he said, ‘Ava you can tell my story, but right now I feel that it’s four plus one, because at least they were together and I was alone.’ ”
Jerome detailed to the audience his first meeting with Wise, which took them both to Harlem. Together, they walked the streets where Wise grew up, and where his youth was ripped away. Wise is the only member of the Five who still resides in New York City.
“I spent a lot of time with him, walking the streets of Harlem,” Jerome said. “He bought me a pair of sneakers the first time we hung out. I was like, ‘don’t buy me these kicks,’ he was like, ‘I have to. I’m Korey Wise. Korey Wise buys Korey Wise sneakers.’ That’s his spirit.”
The actor, who also starred in “Moonlight,” said the time he spent with Wise allowed him to fall into an out-of-body experience for the first time.
“Once I found the voice — and I think you can contest to this Ava — it just went down the body and into the legs. It was so weird. It was the first time I feel like I truly stepped out of my body and into somebody else’s. And, it was because Korey allowed me to do it.”
“When They See Us” has been the most-watched series on Netflix every day since its May 31 premiere, according to the streaming service. To watch the special, search “Oprah Winfrey Presents “When They See Us Now.”