We now know what happened in the park that night in April 1989. A gruesome crime. The police and city roaring with anger. They rounded up all the Black and brown youths in the park they could find. They forced them to talk, despite all evidence to the contrary, about a grizzly happening they hadn’t committed.
Their names are Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusuf Salaam, and Korey Wise. They had a lawyer named Robert Burns, who — in director, writer, and documentarian Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us — is played by the always neatly spooled Blair Underwood.
History, ours and America’s, is as alive as we are. History walks with us. It speaks to us as we wonder how events in the present have come to be. It aligns us: through memory, through DNA, through culture. It weds itself to our perceptions. It twists evidence, where damp grass only so wide now finds itself a cesspool big enough for five bodies instead of one.
The Central Park Five is a part of that history. They are children of that history. They bear the scars of American selfishness, its intolerance, its admittedly complex sense of grandeur and its self. New York City has an outsized presence in that self. In that way, it embodies the worst of America’s campaign to turn Black people into its shadow.
The Central Park Five have a Sarah and Ken Burns documentary in their shadow. But Ava DuVernay has unearthed this story to tell it differently—for Netflix, of course, because for who else? And for love, because for what else? When They See Us, then, is as dramatic as American history. Somehow, as the title suggests, Black people are without form until, suddenly, they come into view trying to survive through roiling waters in New Orleans or hanging large through New York City’s monumental patch of green. Then, before your eyes, children become hardened criminals. Humans aching to survive become pariahs.
To help bring this harrowing tale to life, Blair Underwood had to embody the role of a man who was in way over his head and ill at the time of the trial. Salaam didn’t know this at the time, but his lawyer was on medication, which would explain why he’d nod off during the trial at times. Why he’d ramble at points. Bobby Burns would die soon after the trial ended. He was more Salaam’s family friend than a crack-pot attorney, but in trying times all Salaam’s mother knew was to try.
CASSIUS: What did you know about the five before you were cast?
Blair Underwood: I knew the broad strokes of the case. I knew a white, female jogger had been brutally assaulted, beaten, and raped. I knew that five young Black and brown boys –– four African-American, one Latino, were accused of it. And I knew there was a rush to judgment. I knew that days later Donald Trump had taken a number of full-page ads out calling for the death penalty of these young boys–– literally within days. Before any trial. Before any facts came out. Before any notion of due process. Those were broad strokes that I knew.
So when I came to the project, I had an opportunity to do a deep dive into the attorney for Yusuf Salaam (Bobby Burns), to really learn about the specificity of the case and the lack of evidence. [To learn about] the complexity of having videotaped confessions coerced and also being falsely accused and eventually being exonerated. But what these four one-hour films bring is the opportunity to dig deep and delve into their personal lives. [It] makes you feel the injustice, even more, this miscarriage of justice even more.
C: Why do you think this case was such a large datapoint in New York City and American history?
BU: First you had a brutal crime. And brutal crimes happen all the time, but you had the brutal crime of a white woman. So, you inject and have the confluence of race because you have five Black and brown boys. That’s what you have to remember. They were boys. They were children. They were 14, 15, 16-years-old. They were accused of doing this crime. And this was in the midst of many crimes around Central Park. So this did not happen in a vacuum. People were afraid. People were scared. And somebody did that crime, we found out later because a guy who was a serial rapist around uptown manhattan confessed to it.
And then again you have a high profile real-estate magnate like Donald Trump at the time calling for the death of children. That’s what he was calling for. To bring back the death penalty with no facts on hand of who did it. And we have to remember there were a crime and an injustice. And the meaning of justice is to have a balance of right and wrong, good and bad, and the understanding of that and the administering of justice.
That’s why I love the title of this film When They See Us. The inference is When They See Us, not always, but too often people fear when they see men of color. But the double entendre is When They See Us in the film they can see us for who we really are.
You got me preachin’ this morning, brother! [Laughs]
C: As someone with children, did you have to bury the anger that comes with seeing children put in harm’s way or did you use it for the role?
BU: I don’t think you bury it. I don’t think you bury any of those emotions. In fact, our jobs as actors, our jobs as artists, and our job as storytellers is to bring those emotions and thoughts and fragility and weaknesses and strengths –– all of that which makes up our humanity to the character. I think you have to. But that’s a general statement. Particularly to my character, Robert Burns was a family friend to Yusuf Salaam. He was actually Yusuf Salaam’s mother’s divorce attorney. So he really was in over his head when it came to the case. He’d actually never done a criminal case as he was a divorce attorney. But they had a certain amount of trust in him and had a certain amount of loyalty to him. Legally, I’m sure they could have made better choices, but he gave them a sense of calm and comfort when he was on the case.
C: What kind of research did you do that helped you embody Robert Burns?
BU: Most helpful, after Ava gave us all a dossier on the case, was talking to Yusuf Salaam and seeing how he saw Robert Burns. And he saw him as a kind of father figure. And Robert Burns, by all accounts, felt the same way towards him and very much wanted to protect him. Regardless of his experience as an attorney, he wanted to protect him as best he could and the Salaam family trusted him.
C: I know this is a naive question, but what do you think made everyone involved so quick to condemn these children in the way they did?
BU: Well that is the topic of conversation in the news every day now. The othering of people. Demonizing, vilifying those that are different than us. We hear that from the high prophets of the land and we really have to fight against that and try to find our commonality. So that’s a big question. There’s a lot to how we got to this point in our country and the way race relations are. Listen, I’m a hopeful person and I see hope in the future generations. I see hope in your generation and in the future generations because you look at race relations in this country and those people who are trying to turn the clock back, that’s a losing game.
C: If this case happened today, do you think there would have been a similar miscarriage of justice or do you think we’d have been more thoughtful as a society toward them?
BU: [Laughs] I would say there would be an attempt to have the same miscarriage of justice. I don’t think it would work as easily, if at all. You think about what has changed since then and, yes, there’s social media, but [there’s] also that we’re all photojournalists. We all have cameras, computers in the palm of our hands. Most people in a metropolis like New York City have phones. It doesn’t change things completely, sure, if you look at [the case of] Eric Garner, for example, but it makes it a little more difficult for those doing things to get away with it. It doesn’t stop it, but it’s another tool in the arsenal. So, yeah, I think there are definitely those people who would like to keep the status quo. Keep all the Black and brown people in their place. But those days are gone.