Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us is a tough watch, make no mistake about it. Watching as Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise – young, teenage African-American boys are wrongly imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit. This wasn’t just any crime; it was one that swept through New York as the media took away their identities and named the five young men the “Central Park Five” and accused them of raping the Central Park Jogger.
The four-part series revisits what happened and focuses on the boys, just normal young teenagers whose lives were destroyed by a criminal justice system that needed to nail a case and highlights the problems with systematic racism in the country. The ongoing problem…
In the series, actor Jharrel Jerome delivers a knockout performance as Korey Wise. “I didn’t understand the depths of the story,” Jerome tells me. “I didn’t know about it until I saw and met Ava (DuVernay).”
Jerome auditioned for the part of Korey Wise, and at the time, he was in the middle of another role, working on Mr. Mercedes and had facial hair, but he still sent his audition tape in. All he heard back was, “We love it, but can he shave his face?” Due to his current role at the time, he was unable to do anything. As soon as Jerome wrapped on Mr. Mercedes, he found out DuVernay still had not cast the role so he flew to New York and met with her, but not before shaving his beard off. “I got to meet with Ava. I read it and then she told me she wanted me to play both parts. The older Korey and the younger Korey.” Jerome got the part and said the moment he found out, he dropped his phone on the floor.”It had a tiny Ava crack, but it was so worth it.” He jokes.
Jerome’s next challenge was tackling how to play Wise. “He’s still alive, and I wanted to honor him. I learned to dive into the part by learning who Korey is today. The experience of what he went through in prison, that, I got from the script.” He adds, “I also had to look the part.” Jerome explains he doesn’t go to the gym or workout much so when seeing how Wise looked. ” I had to work out. I had to go to the gym, and that involved doing things like pushups to broaden the shoulders and gain the muscle. I ended up gaining eight pounds.” He says.”I also worked on the voice, that was the first thing I had to do and once I got that, the rest came.”
It’s not the physical that Jerome had to take on, it was a mental one. Jerome says he would sit on the set and look at a blank wall to get into the mind frame of portraying Wise and understanding the confinement. “I needed that to feel that pain and that heartbreak but I know it was nothing compared to what Korey went through.” He adds, “There were days when I couldn’t sleep. I’d lie there awake. There were days I couldn’t eat just thinking about the fact that Korey must’ve not been able to eat.”
He also met with Wise. “I was terrified,” Jerome explains, but his anxieties were soon put at ease when Wise believed in him and passed over his own chain. “He had confidence in me and what I was doing.” He adds, he spent time with Wise, walking around the city with him and just bonding. Wise even bought him sneakers, but he also gave Jerome his gold chain. “I spent time with him and that’s how I got to embody him.”
Jerome hails from the Bronx in New York. “I’d see three or four police detectives a day.” He says. “When you see them, you’re polite because they’re the cops, but now I’m cautious. I see a cop now, and I see him. I see Korey.”
He’s aware that watching the series might cause people to feel angry, but that’s not the solution. “We need to be having conversations about it. We need to be talking.”
On a lighter note, Jerome likes to create playlists for roles he’s playing and, “Yes, I did create one for Korey. It was all hip-hop. 80s hip-hop. 90’s hip-hop and tunes I think he’d like.” I suggest Jerome should put it out there to inspire everyone. He just might, he tells me.
Talking about how the whole experience has been for him, Jerome says, “I was hopping on the train in the Bronx and no one would notice. Now, when I’m on the train, I see some people looking at me.”