Four years in the works, When They See Us earned a whopping 16 Emmy nominations, including outstanding limited series. The gut-wrenching Netflix miniseries tells the stories of Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, unjustly convicted on rape and assault charges in the notorious 1989 Central Park jogger case when they were just teenagers. When They See Us was directed and co-written by Ava DuVernay, who has emerged as one of the most important voices in Hollywood. She has a multi-million-dollar-overall deal at Warner Bros., a filmography that includes Selma (nominated for a best picture Oscar) and 13th (a documentary about mass incarceration that also earned an Oscar nomination), and an expanding slate of TV shows, including OWN’s recently renewed Queen Sugar. DuVernay talks to TV Drama about telling the Central Park Five’s harrowing stories and championing diverse voices in film and television.
TV DRAMA: When did you decide you wanted to make a drama about the Central Park Five? What kinds of research did you have to do?
DUVERNAY: I was invited to tell the story by Raymond Santana, one of the five. He contacted me on social media and invited me to talk with him about the story. I did and fell in love with the guys and decided to take on the truth-telling involved in this story. There has been so much injustice, so many lies, so much misinformation. So over a period of four years, I went about interviewing them extensively, their families as well, researching every shred of press, also confidential materials and public court documents that I could get my hands on. I assembled a writers’ room to work off of my outline. I wrote each of the episodes in concert with a writer I selected.
TV DRAMA: It’s a lot to cover in four episodes. What was the approach to constructing each episode arc?
DUVERNAY: When writing a big story like this, it’s always a challenge to figure out what the beginning, middle and end are. I looked at it as phases of the case. The first episode deals with police aggression, the arrest and precinct behavior. The second deals with court and bail and judges and defense attorneys and prosecutors. The third deals with post-incarceration and juvenile detention. And the fourth deals with incarceration itself. Breaking it up through the different levers of the case gave us an outline, a structure, a guidepost, and we began telling stories within each of those buckets.
TV DRAMA: How did you go about assembling your writers’ room?
DUVERNAY: Hand-picked folks that I admired. Robin Swicord was the first person I called. She’s a writing mentor of mine. I actually wrote Selma at her house. She encouraged me early on in my career when I was just writing. I trusted her, and she eventually became a co-EP on the project. Attica Locke is a novelist-turned-screenwriter. I loved her voice. She had a lot of experience in legal story and running through paperwork and trying to decipher cases. So she was perfect. And then Michael Starrbury is a writer I had been working with on two other scripts. We’re in total synch in what we do. With the three of them, I was able to sit down with a partner, look across the table from someone who I trusted, who was as passionate as I was, and had a lot of talent. That’s how we did it.
TV DRAMA: The entire cast is fantastic, but those young actors, in particular, are phenomenal. How did you work with them to prepare them for the roles they were playing?
DUVERNAY: The biggest thing we had to do, beyond the usual work, was bring the boys up to speed on the case, and then go beyond the facts of the case. [We were] trying to help them get inside the case in a more intimate way. So putting it into context of some of the current cases they are familiar with. And taking them through exercises that allowed them to place themselves in [the case]. And then finally meeting their counterparts, meeting the man they’d be playing, looking in his eyes and letting him tell them stories. We did that with each boy. I felt it was very effective.
TV DRAMA: Talk about the importance of being able to tell this story on Netflix.
DUVERNAY: It’s the exposure. It’s like nothing you can get elsewhere. [I made] a $100-plus million film for Disney and it wasn’t distributed in as many places and territories and countries. It wasn’t exposed to as many people as this was, in their own language, in their own home. This is the kind of film that I don’t think people would necessarily go to the theater for. But they will definitely sit in the safety and comfort of their own home and tackle some of the tougher subject matter and cry alone and ask questions and turn off and take a break and come back. The platform allowed for the perfect confluence of circumstances for folks to really take it in and feel it deeply.
TV DRAMA: Let’s talk about Queen Sugar. How did you decide to bring the Natalie Baszile book to television?
DUVERNAY: This was another invitation, by Oprah Winfrey. There were two or three books she was thinking about. [She asked,] Do any of them interest you? Queen Sugar, the idea of images of black people on land, dealing with ideas of property and society and culture and identity, captured my imagination. I’d never adapted a book before; [I was attracted to] the idea you can go in and take seeds of what works in a text and then adorn it with other things to allow it to grow for years and years. It really felt like taking seeds and watering them, so it’s been a beautiful time on that show. It’s my pride and joy.
TV DRAMA: Queen Sugar has an all-female team of directors. What’s been your approach to building the team there?
DUVERNAY: The opportunity given to me by Oprah’s network and Warner Bros. was to make the show in my likeness, which is people of color, women of all kinds. Our crew is very inclusive, our directors are all women, our writers’ room looks like the United Nations. Our crew over-indexes in department heads of color and women department heads. That’s everything from the editing room to the grip to the costume design to the production design to the casting. You have black women making a show about themselves, and that is something that we don’t often get the opportunity to do. I’m honored to have been given that opportunity.
TV DRAMA: What’s it been like working with Oprah?
DUVERNAY: She gives me the freedom to create and to explore and she gives me the power to make those creations and explorations become a reality. It’s been an incredible working relationship.
TV DRAMA: You’re so engaged with your fans on Twitter, especially around Queen Sugar. Why has that been important for you?
DUVERNAY: Twitter is an opportunity to enter a room and talk with people. When I get on, that’s what I think about every day. It doesn’t keep me in isolation in my own world as a director going in and out of editing rooms and sets and in my own head. I force myself to get on there and read different people’s opinions, hear different people’s voices. I’ve learned so much from hearing from people other than myself. I’ve learned a lot from people like me. It allows me to remember the voices that I carry with me into boardrooms and editing rooms and sets. I’ve really embraced it in that way. I find it fascinating, and creepy, but more than anything it’s a room with a lot of conversations going on, and I like to talk, so it’s perfect for me!
TV DRAMA: In terms of your journey from publicist to director and writer, when were you confident enough in your skills to be able to say, This is what I want to do full time?
DUVERNAY: It didn’t come from confidence; it came from really being clear that it was the time to step out into the gap and take a risk. It was brave and unknowing, but not confidence. The confidence didn’t come until a long time later, and that’s always still an ongoing muscle that has to be exercised to acquire and keep confidence. But overall, when I started, it was just about giving it a try.
TV DRAMA: How are you positioning your collective, Array?
DUVERNAY: It’s an advocacy collective and our goal is to disrupt every system that marginalizes people out. We’ve distributed 28 films by hand over the last nine years, with no money, no P&A budgets, no billboards, no nothing. We are showing the work of filmmakers of color and women filmmakers all over the world, in arthouse theaters and on the sides of walls with sheets and in museums and schools and YMCAs and wherever we can get a screen. We’re saying, yes we can have a show where women direct every episode and 90 percent of these women will have never directed an episode, and we will put dozens of new women into the DGA [Directors Guild of America] and the television system. Whether it’s production, distribution, exhibition, we’re constantly thinking about and incubating and executing ways, through Array, to disrupt. We’re incubating all kinds of ways to get into how film and television are made, to look at the pressure points that we feel are weak and apply pressure to try to break them.
TV DRAMA: What’s next for you?
DUVERNAY: I’m working on a number of television shows that I’m thrilled with. Right now we’re shooting a show called Cherish the Day [for OWN]. It’s an eight-episode romance anthology. Every episode is one day in the life of a black couple. There are a couple of shows that are dealing with romance in dramatic situations, like Underground, or in comedic situations, like Insecure. I love both of those shows, but for me, it’s a question of, How can you preserve love within your household when the world tells you that it doesn’t love you? So that’s the idea of getting into the nooks and crannies of the relationship. That has a lot of my focus right now.