Culture  /  Oral History

The Central Park Five: ‘We Were Just Baby Boys’

The men, whose story will be brought to life in Netflix’s “When They See Us,” discuss the mini-series with their onscreen counterparts.

One morning earlier this month, a group of 10 men and teenage boys gathered for a photo shoot in a small studio on the Lower East Side. The overall mood was chill; as the music of Nipsey Hussle, 50 Cent and Wale filled the room, they chatted amiably in between shots, laughing, joking and moving along to the beats.

The occasion for this gathering was bittersweet: Five of the subjects were Korey Wise, 46; Kevin Richardson, 44; Raymond Santana, 44; Antron McCray, 45; and Yusef Salaam, 45, known collectively as the Central Park Five. Their stories are being retold in “When They See Us,” a new Netflix mini-series created and directed by Ava DuVernay.

In 1989 the men — then teenagers — were arrested in connection with the rape and assault of a white female jogger, and eventually convicted in a case that came to symbolize the stark injustices black and brown people experience within the legal system and in media coverage.They were convicted based partly on police-coerced confessions, andeach spent between six and 13-plus years in prison for charges including attempted murder, rape and assault.

The men maintained their innocence throughout the case, trial and prison terms, and all were exonerated after Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist, confessed to the crime in 2002. In 2014, they were awarded a $41 million settlement, though the City of New York denied any wrongdoing.
The other five in the studio that day were the actors tasked with the challenge of portraying their younger selves in the series, premiering May 31: Jharrel Jerome, 21; Asante Blackk, 17; Marquis Rodriguez, 22; Caleel Harris, 15; and Ethan Herisse, 18.
As they gathered for a group photo, Wise looked on and observed that they were in the stages of their lives when everything had stopped for him and the other men. “Amazing. Just beautiful looking at them,” he would say later when we sat down for an interview.

He added, “This is life after death. I always say that. From now on I know what Biggie was talking about. There’s life after death.”

In a series of chats, the Central Park Five and their onscreen counterparts discussed the pain, pride and emotional toll of revisiting those fateful events 30 years later. These are edited and condensed excerpts from those conversations.