Production designer Akin McKenzie On Working with Ava DuVernay and the importance of design in When They See Us.
In Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, the filmmaker takes us back to that night in April 1989 when Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Jr. and Korey Wise were labeled the “Central Park Five.” Subsequently, they were wrongfully imprisoned for the rape of a white woman jogging through Central Park.
Spanning four powerful, striking and important hours, DuVernay follows these young men from their homes to prison, examining all that is wrong with the criminal justice system. Production designer, Akin McKenzie recreates the world of these men and heroes and 1989 New York.
I caught up with McKenzie to discuss his visual influences and his color palettes as he juxtaposes the cold world of the institution against the love and warmth of their homes.
How did you get involved in When They See Us?
Through Bradford Young. Ava had reached out to me directly and was aware of my previous work. I had worked with Bradford prior to this, so we had a relationship going back. I got a call from her one day and she is as magnificent and as inspiring as you would expect.
Where do you begin as a production designer when it’s a true story like this? What’s the process involved?
It’s always research. The beginning is digging in as deep as you can to understand these characters and where they came from. It’s about understanding the energies that inspired them and then trying to embed that into the worlds that represent them. When you’re dealing with real people that’s just exponentially greater. When you add in period, in addition to that, hopefully, you’re open to and welcoming all of that exploration. I like to think that regardless I investigate on that level, but for this, if you don’t investigate correctly, it’ll be visible. You’re also looking to honor those humans and represent them in a way that does them justice. With them, I dug as deep as I possibly could to understand what the neighborhoods and the blocks they lived on looked like. I looked at the community at large, and the mission was to embed that information into the world we created.
New York 1989 was so vastly different then. What were your visual influences?
There wasn’t an individual thing. I have mood books that extend way beyond what people will see. Those give us the ability to transport into the time and place that we’re trying to represent. There are photos of children in church clothes and the diversity of African dress in Harlem. There are the street vendors, the happiness and in some areas, the lack of happiness. We looked at how the city government treats that environment. Part of the exploration, you see the restrictions that protect the residents of New York did not extend to the residents of Harlem. So, because of that, you see decay on levels that have subsequently been refreshed, but you find happiness in spite of that. For that, that was the trick where you define and understand the balance of overcoming in spite of your situation or circumstances. Those documents grow as we do our research. If I felt I needed to redefine a path, I’d go back and flip through those books and the path is given to you. Also, the color palette informs you. It reaches out to you and guides your direction.
Talk about the color palette. The precinct is cold and unwelcoming, juxtaposed with their homes so filled with love and warmth.
There was always an understanding of what colors would compliment and make us feel secure. I think that was through conversations with Ava and through Bradford’s exploration of how light would affect our children and the world at large.
In their homes, the thing that was important to us was defining them individually. These are separate children with unique lives and interests. They had different families and where they find love is different.
Juxtapose that with the coldness and harshness of the municipal world. Whether you’re in a welfare office, prison or courthouse, you see this overlap of subway tiles. You find who and how was responsible for building these spaces and the fact that they use similar utensils. You find that same information in the schools. There’s the visual overlap of the construct of these places. You find that the same information in the projects, there’s structural and visual overlap between how these places were created which I think was interesting.
In the precinct, it was being observed of what we knew existed – and there is boldness in some of the choices back in the 80s. What we find flattering and for who. There are taupes in the connecting hallways that aren’t complimentary to the skin tones in a lot of the police. For our children, their skin tone separates from that, so you’re seeing the beauty in some of our main characters and that the coloring of those taupes does not compliment their interrogators. When you’re in those spaces, the intimacy of our proximity to those boys and you’re feeling the emotion of their face, but having that backdrop is pretty stunning, sad and emotional.
In Native Son, you put your own marks with the visual art that’s displayed. Were you able to do that here with this?
I did. In all of the home environments all of the artwork in the spaces – on the back of those paintings or posters – I include a paragraph that delves into the artist and their story and where they come from. The purpose is twofold. We go into the environment and we feel an energy that’s specific to our characters. For us as filmmakers, we can flip that over and understand a new level of depth and how that artwork could have found itself being displayed in the homes of our heroes. Your lack of art or art choices speaks very much as to who you are as a person. A lot of times it can be aspirational. It can speak to past explorations that no longer represent you, it gives you a back story. It can also speak to where you came from and I like to be very closely involved in how we discover our characters through art.
Art extends past what we hang on our wall and can be how we organize ourselves. There are a lot of ways to get a couch. It can be purchased. It can be bought from a thrift store. More than the couch, the blanket you put over it, is more closely related to you as a person. Your choice of a blanket is more in your control and speak to who you are.
There’s a scene when the boys are hugging and the background with the lighting is so striking.
Even at that moment, in that frame there is a red NO SMOKING was painted on the wall. All of that was made on a stage, but it was a creative choice. We constructed it with that level of thought. The intricacy of the scene work in that environment made it feel so real and raw and it needed to be that.
Ava is such an incredible – she’s more than just a director. She’s a force of energy and light and when you step into a project with her, you come with that in mind. You step up to the plate. With a project like this, your job is to honor these boys that have suffered and to tell the story with intricacy and detail that will allow them truth.