Never mind that the moderator of an FYC Sunday night panel at Paramount for the Netflix hit When They See Us was celebrated Star Wars trilogy director J.J. Abrams. On this evening, the superstar director was more than willing to play superfan for When They See Us director Ava Duvernay and her four-part docudrama, which has netted a whopping 16 Emmy nominations including Outstanding Limited Series.
In June, Netflix broke out of its usual cone of silence on viewership figures to report that more than 23 million accounts had tuned in to the series worldwide.
“You cannot look away,” Abrams said of the series before introducing the panel, which included DuVernay, Emmy nominated composer Kris Bowers and nominated actors Asante Blackk, Jharrel Jerome, Niecy Nash, Aunjanue Ellis and Marsha Stephanie Blake. The series, which he praised as “filmmaking tightrope-walkery…blows my mind and breaks my heart,” Abrams said.
DuVernay, who won a standing ovation before speaking a word, revisited a few stories that have become part of the lore of the popular series during its sprint toward Emmy. One was the tale of how the series, recounting the story of the falsely accused, so-called Central Park 5, was launched by a tweet to her from one of the falsely accused, Raymond Santana.
“When I was 16 years old, Korey Wise was 16 years old,” DuVernay said, referring to the accused youth portrayed by panelist Jerome. Growing up in Compton, she said the community was transfixed by the story. “There’s no way I couldn’t do it.”
She added that real-life members of the group have become part of her extended family now and said: “They are all my date for the Emmys…I’m going to have them all out.”
DuVernay also explained why the series received an 11th hour title change from “Central Park 5.” She said that the moniker was not chosen but thrust upon these men. She wanted a title that would heighten awareness of the hearts of real human beings that beat within the story.
She added that the drama is presented in four parts to expose “all parts of the criminal justice system.”
“When The See Us allows us to see all of us,” DuVernay said.
Composer Bowers, who performed some of his score following the panel, said he saw his job as “just not to mess up” the moving performances of the actors. He made a choice to reference horror films for musical style “because what was happening was so horrific.”
Cast members said they have been overwhelmed by the exposure the popular series has brought to them. “That was the part I absolutely did not see coming,” Nash said.
Blackk, who is now 17, has been particularly flabbergasted, having received an Outstanding Supporting Actor (limited series or movie) nomination for his first professional role. “I was watching Netflix, ironically, when Ava called my cell phone, personally, and I freaked out.”
But the actor said he constantly reminded himself of the importance of the story they were trying to tell. “This isn’t about you. This isn’t the Asante Blackk story,” he said. Ellis and Blake, who portrayed the mothers of Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise, respectively, said they were gratified by the chance to speak to the real-life characters before they portrayed them.
Jerome drew some laughs by saying the hardest thing about portraying Wise was that he had to bulk up to portray the character as an adult. “I don’t hit the gym. You give me some money, I’ll go to the gym,” he cracked.
However, he also brought some audiences members to tears when he told the story of meeting the real-life Wise for the first time at a table read of the script. “He took the chain off his neck and put it on mine (and said) you’re Korey Wise now,” the actor said.