Niecy Nash Says 'When They See Us' Central Park Five Story on Netflix Will 'Galvanize Us to Learn Our Rights'

You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney. These are two sentences of the Miranda Warning everyone should know in case they are arrested. Officers are supposed to deliver them during an apprehension, that isn't always the case. It wasn't the case when five young black and Latino boys were subjected to questioning by detectives regarding the violent rape of a white female jogger in New York City in April 1989.

Those boys—Raymond Santana, 14; Kevin Richardson, 15, Antron McCray, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, and Korey Wise, 16—went down in history as the Central Park Five. They convicted of the rape and assault of Trisha Meili following an extensive and violent interrogation which coerced false confessions.

There's a chance it would not have mattered if the teenagers knew their rights or not when they were initially picked up by authorities. It was the late 1980s. They were people of color, and America was still grappling with racist fear of black and brown folks. However, one can't help but wonder wonder what the outcome of the interrogation—and essentially the lives of the predetermined "culprits"—would have been if there was a lawyer present, if they had been informed of all of their rights, or if their parents had known.

Viewers will see for themselves the tragedy that can unfold when people aren't aware of their rights in Netflix's new series When They See Us, based on story of the Central Park Five. History has given us the details of the case and the wrongful convictions of Santana, Richards, McCray, Salaam and Wise. Now, for the for the first time ever, the story is finally told from the perspective of the accused in the four-part series directed by award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay.

One striking aspect of the show's depiction of the teens' interrogation was their lack of knowledge about their rights to an attorney and to remain silent, established by the Supreme Court's 1966 Miranda v. Arizona ruling. It becomes painfully clear early on that the boys' parents are also unaware of these rights, resulting in ill-advised decisions that cataclysmically affected the young men's lives.

"A lot of what happened to these boys was just because the parents didn't know. They didn't know what to tell you to do or not to do. 'Sign the piece of paper baby so you can come home. We don't know, we just want you back home," Niecy Nash, who stars as Korey Wise' mother Delores, told Newsweek.

While there are plenty of lessons to be learned spread throughout the series, Nash said she hopes the show would "galvanize us as a community to learn our rights."

"In your naivete, you end up getting your children in a worse situation than they were from the beginning," she said.

The actor also hopes people realize how trauma can derive from false judgment, but most importantly, that viewers would watch and learn their history—black history—to avoid repeating it.

Read Newsweek's full interview with Niecy Nash below.

How aware of the Central Park Five were you before you signed on with this project?

What I knew about them I had only seen in the media—the media coverage of the story, the news reporting of the story. But I felt like it wasn't justice, and I felt like I was carrying a burden for people who I'd never met. So when the opportunity came to actually take part in When They See Us, I was like, "Yes, please and thank you!" I gobbled up anything Ava could get her hands on by way of research, including but not limited to speaking with Delores Wise and Korey. This narrative was never theirs. It was always told through somebody else's lens and view of them. So now we have the opportunity to unpack what happened to them and their families from their own narrative.

As a mother, what was that experience like for you stepping into Delores' shoes and realizing all that she went through because of what was happening with her son?

The one thing I will tell you about being a mother is that, at any given point in time, you're doing the best you can with the resources you have available to you at that time. A lot of times we look back on it and we say, "I wish I could of, should of, would of. I wish I could of done better. I should of done this. I could of done that." But in those moments in time, you're doing the best you can. What was important to me was to make sure that you understood this woman was in a lot of pain and there was a lot of fear, which oftentimes—in some scenes—was masked. You have to be vulnerable to your children to say, "I'm afraid." You have to be vulnerable to your children to say, "I'm scared for you." But if you say, "I'm mad," or, "I'm angry"—if you put another color on it, it's a little easier to accept. Then at some point, you see in the film when she found the Lord, that was a transition for her. But above all else, I believe this woman loved her children.

Our history with the police has resulted in most black families having to have those conversations kids about how to deal with law enforcement. Did you have any talks with your children about how to behave or what to do when approached by an officer?

Yes, you have to! You have to if you want them to make it home alive in this climate. You gotta have the hard conversation: Keep your hands where they can see them. Do what they tell you to do. Don't reach in your pockets. And if there is an injustice, live to tell me about it. Make sure you make it home, and then we can deal with it. You have to say all of those things.

The show highlights some of the comments our president made about the Central Park Five during their trial. What do you think about what Donald Trump said about the guys back then?

The most important takeaway is the truth. I don't care who said what and when they said it. At this point, we now know that the course of five babies' lives was turned upside down because of a lie, and we never get to hear from them. So collectively and corporately, this is their story. It may intersect other people's thoughts and perceptions and ideals, but at the end of the day, this story is not only their truth, it is the truth. And I think that's what is paramount in all of it.

Most of the cast members portraying the Central Park Five are really young, and this is the first big role for some of them. What did you think about their performances?

They did a beautiful job. I feel like every family who belonged to [the young cast], the actors ended up taking them underneath their wing. "You alright? You good? You need anything?" We just wanted to love on them and make sure they felt really supported because this work was rich and it was weighted. Oftentimes you had the real people on set or their families on set. So there was a big responsibility to pick up this yolk and carry it. I thought they did a beautiful job, especially my baby [Jharrel Jerome, who plays Korey Wise].

All of the men have managed to move on from that experience and create their own identities apart from what happened to them.

Right after we wrapped, I figured my job was done. I did my part and played the role. I'm an actor and that's what I do, but my "who" is to be of service. So I joined [Korey Wise's criminal justice reform organization] Innocence Project, to help those who've been wrongfully convicted. I went to Atlanta to do a panel with the men and someone asked Raymond Santana, "How can we support you now?" And he said, "Well I thought that once I was released, got a driver's license, had a family, got married, had children, everything would be right." He said, "But I'm still not whole. So I don't know what to tell you." So that residual, the residue of what has happened with these people, it hasn't left them. They just learned how to leave with it. That's important for people to get—that the apple cart was turned upside down in all these children's lives and now they are men still dealing with the trauma of what happened.

Niecy Nash Talks 'When They See Us' on Netflix
(L-R) Niecy Nash and Jharrel Jerome appear in "When They See Us," debuting on Netflix on May 31, 209. Nash talked about her role as Delores Wise, mother of wrongfully convicted Korey Wise, in an interview with Newsweek. Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

I went to lunch with Korey [recently], and he and I were walking down 9th Avenue coming from lunch, and I don't know, our hands just got intertwined. We just walked down the street, but he never let my hand go, all the way back home. He never let my hand go until he walked me to my hotel room. He squeezed me so tight, and that made me think about all that time [he spent] being separated from maternal intimacy and the fact that when people did put their hands on him it was so violent, so aggressive. At one point I wanted to cry but I was like, "I'm not gone do it. Suck it up Niecy! Suck it up!" You know? "Not in front of Korey. Wait 'til you get upstairs and have your moment."

When filming was done, did you take a break or do anything to decompress after dealing with such heavy material? Jharrel said he went straight to Aruba after you guys were done.

I didn't do anything! That's why I'm still a wreck! I went from one job to another job, which I should not have done. I should have taken a break. And I squeezed in another movie in [while we were filming]. I did another movie for Netflix called Uncorked. So right now what you're looking at is burn out. You don't even wanna see it; I going up to that hotel room and sob like a baby because I am emotionally exhausted. I still haven't unpacked it. It was just a lot. You know that saying, "And a child shall lead them?" I should have followed Jharrel right on to Aruba, like "Scoot over!" That's what I should have done.

What's the one thing you hope viewers take away from When They See Us?

The takeaway is for us to not be in a rush to judgment. We're socialized to see black and brown people being led out in handcuffs, body slammed, kicked. Then you look at some of their white contemporaries—you could go in and shoot up a church and kill a lot of people and get walked very lovingly to the car and asked if you want a cheeseburger. So I hope the takeaway is not to instantly believe a visual and demonize somebody before you asked, "Are they even guilty of this?" And lastly, I hope helps people to say, "Where can I serve? How can I get involved?" And at the very least, "Let me get up and go vote."

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