The four-part Netflix series about the men now known as “The Exonerated Five” received an impressive amount of recognition from the Television Academy, earning 16 nominations — the most Emmy nods for a program on the streaming service this year. As the awards show draws closer, DuVernay is anxious and hopeful for the five men the story is based on. In fact, DuVernay revealed that Korey Wise, Raymond Santana Jr., Kevin Richardson, Antron Mccray and Yusef Salaam will be escorting her on the big night.
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“The most important thing is the way that the men’s lives have changed. The real ‘Exonerated Five’ — they live a different life now,” DuVernay told Variety on the red carpet at the Paramount Theatre. “People know that they’re innocent. They treat them like heroes. They treat them like survivors that they are. I see how this four-part film has really transformed them. That’s the best thing the movie could’ve done.”
Aside from the critical reaction, the series also created a loud cultural conversation among viewers. Jharrel Jerome told Variety the only projects with a comparable reaction to “When They See Us” are “Roots” and “Moonlight” — a film in which he also appeared. “[That film] was definitely a big gateway for young black gay men in cinema and their story being told,” he said. “Just to say that you can compare to that is really cool.”
DuVernay and Jerome were joined at the event by the Emmy-nominated cast, including lead actress contender Niecy Nash and first-time nominees Aunjanue Ellis, Marsha Stephanie Blake and Asante Blackk. Renowned pianist Kris Bowers — who also earned an Emmy nomination as the show’s composer — also delighted audiences at the event with a brief performance. The screening was followed by a conversation moderated by DuVernay’s close friend and filmmaker J.J. Abrams, who spoke with the cast about their experiences creating the series.
“For me to portray Delores Wise, it definitely cost me something as an artist because I spend the primary portion of my career making people laugh. So being funny and being known for being funny, I really wanted to make sure that people understood that I could play another note. I wanted to make sure of that because we are carrying a burden for people that are still with us,” Nash shared. “Some of these characters are still living so there’s a responsibility that comes along with that caliber of work. I wasn’t really prepared for what I would take home at the end of the day.”
The discussion quickly turned emotional as actors became teary reminiscing about the real people behind their performances. Blake — who earned an Emmy nomination for her performance as the late Linda McCray — told the crowd about her relationship with the woman she portrayed.
“She told us stories about her marriage with Bobby and how she always felt like he was her husband and when he wanted to come back home, the door was open because that was her husband. [And she shared details of] her relationship with Antron, her only child,” she recalled. “For her household going from being filled with all this male energy to being completely empty for years, the heartbreak of it is — when I think about it — is something that as a mom, I can’t even imagine.”
Blake also credited her cast members for their support. “With this wonderful relationship that Michael [Kenneth Williams] and Caleel [Harris] and I had, I just always felt very safe, but I also knew that at the end of the day I was pretending at something that someone had gone through. So the responsibility, to me, was to get it right and do it with love and kindness and honor it because as dramatic as it was for us to play at it, real people have gone through it,” she concluded.