Acclaimed novelist Attica Locke joined a National Association of Black Journalists Los Angeles panel Wednesday in Hollywood along with actors Niecy Nash and Blair Underwood for their new Netflix series When They See Us, featuring the true-life stories of the boys who had become known as the Central Park Five.
Based in Los Angeles, Attica has written award-winning novels The Cutting Season, Pleasantville, Black Water Rising, and Bluebird, Bluebird, which was picked up by FX in 2017 for a TV series. A sequel titled Heaven, My Home will be out in September.
As a writer and producer, Attica said the Ava DuVernay project, which includes Oprah and Robert DeNiro as producers, was the highest outlet for her talent with the social justice aspect. The four-episode series available on Netflix this weekend surrounds the New York City case convicting five teenage African American and Latino boys over the rape of a white investment banker who received the moniker of Central Park Jogger. The 1989 event and the subsequent trials revived racial tensions within the city and country, infamously including an $85,000 New York Times ad from Donald Trump calling for the death penalty for the boys. The woman, who was later revealed to be Trisha Meili in a 2004 memoir, survived the attack though still experiences cognitive difficulties.
The case is now examined by journalism scholars who find the media coverage 30 years ago had a racial tinge with most articles never saying these boys—Antron McCray, 15, Kevin Richardson, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, Raymond Santana, 14, and Korey Wise, 16—”allegedly” committed the crime, a necessarily placed word to let the masses know their innocence was probable. Terms such as “wolf pack” and “wilding” dominated headlines along with “bloodthirsty,” “animals,” “savages” and “human mutations,” according to the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism and research organization. It added newspaper columnists such as New York Post’s Pete Hamill wrote the teens hailed “from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference and ignorance…a land with no fathers…to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.”
In 2002, after the boys became men in prison from sentences ranging from 6 to 13 years, convicted murderer and rapist Matias Reyes admitted to the rape. His DNA matched the samples collected from the crime scene, and detectives said he knew details about the crime that was never released to the public. He’s serving a life sentence.
The next year, the five wrongfully convicted men filed a civil lawsuit against New York City for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. The charges against them were vacated, and they eventually received a $41 million settlement in 2014.
Reams of articles from the time were prepared by the When They See Us staff for the actors to know the real people they will play on screen, the panel said. Attica added that watching the actual “confession” videotapes from the boys, who say they were coerced into those confessions for a crime they didn’t commit, “fucked her up.” She said it was difficult to watch the children without their parents saying they were a part of the crime when their statements contradicted each other. Niecy brought up in the discussion that mental health hotlines were available to the cast and staff over the emotionally heavy material, adding she had never seen an emphasis of self-care on a production set.
In November, Attica led a social media campaign against the Mystery Writers of America’s decision to bestow a lifetime achievement award to Linda Fairstein, the Central Park Five prosecutor who pushed for the convictions of the teens and eventually became a successful mystery novelist. The literary organization rescinded the award for the first time in its history after it said many members were also against the decision.