Actor Jharrel Jerome, perhaps best known for his role in “Moonlight,” recalls walking to school a few years ago in his native New York City, worried about an upcoming test, when he was stopped by two police officers.
“Stop! Can I see your bag?” one asked him.
He immediately froze in fear. Jerome let them look though his notebooks, papers and pens. Then they let him go. He was still shaking at his desk hours later.
Jerome, 21, drew heavily on that testy interaction to play Korey Wise, an innocent man who spent 12 years behind bars for a rape in Central Park he never committed.
Wise was one of five Black and Latino teenagers – the others were Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana – who were coerced into confessing to the crime and are collectively known as the “Central Park Five.”
In Ava DuVernay’s new four-part Netflix series “When They See Us,” the horrific odyssey the five endured is shown over 25 years, from the night in 1989 when they were arrested to the day a settlement was reached with the city in 2014.
The case was drawn on racial lines from the outset, with the victim being a young white woman, and it drew worldwide attention. Tabloid headlines compared the teens to a wolf pack, and Donald Trump took out newspaper ads calling for the return of the death penalty in New York state. It took years for the five to be exonerated, and they spent most of their youth in prison. Another man was found guilty of the attack.
The five young actors who play the accused in the first half of the series were horrified to learn details of the case and hope it can lead to changes in the judicial system.
The two New York actors – Jerome and Rodriguez – were acquainted with the case before landing their roles, but the three others – Asante Blackk, 17, Caleel Harris, 15, and Ethan Herisse, 18 – hadn’t heard of the plight of the Central Park Five. Now they think it’s too important to forget.
“It’s something that needs to continue to be told, to remind everyone that miscarriages of justice can happen,” said Herisse. Harris agreed, and said the case is about something else, too: “It is a story of survival.”
To get into character, all five actors met their counterparts, who charmed the young men with their cheer despite the hardships they faced.
The young actors seem changed by the experience of working on the project and said they wanted to find projects as meaningful down the road.
“I want to be a part of important stories and I want to be a part of the right stories and I want them to be told correctly and to be told with an inclusive mindset,” said Rodriguez, who is next off to work on the “Game of Thrones” prequel.