On a rainy Wednesday evening, a long line extended along Broad Street outside of Temple University’s Campus Recreation Center. As students in raincoats talked amongst each other, a buzz could be felt in the air. This Temple University homecoming event was a bit more serious than others, but just as captivating.
The Temple Main Campus Program Board organized Now They See Us, a follow up conversation to Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed Netflix miniseries When They See Us. Temple University lecturer, attorney and hip-hop artist Timothy Welbeck was joined by three special guests for a discussion on the events that unfolded in the four-part miniseries. Dr. Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana Jr. of the Exonerated Five (the collective name for the group of young men wrongfully sent to trial for a crime they did not commit. The group was previously referred to as the Central Park Five) were on hand to discuss their harrowing experiences and the lessons they learned. Actor Jharrel Jerome, a recent Emmy Award winner for his portrayal of Exonerated Five member Korey Wise, joined Salaam and Santana for the discussion.
It was Raymond Santana Jr’s tweet to director Ava DuVernay in 2015 that served as the catalyst for what would become When They See Us. Santana vividly remembers what his life was like as a teenager before the events depicted in the miniseries. “Raymond at 14 years old was just this kid that loved to go to school, loved to sketch, and loved watching videos because back then we had VHS,” Santana said. “I was a carefree kid … and didn’t know what I wanted to do or be yet. I loved having options and was in love with fashion.”
Dr. Yusef Salaam also had fond memories of his teenage aspirations. “I was going to LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. I drew, I created the necklace [that I am wearing], and I wanted to be a hip-hop artist,” Salaam said. “I was into skateboarding, bike riding, climbing trees and kung-fu movies. Just being a young person full of life, adventure, with the possibilities of being great and what that means, and the naivete of the system that you’re living under is … Up until the nightmare begins.”
Bronx, New York native Jharrel Jerome’s life has changed relatively quickly over the course of a few years. The Dominican American was a freshman at upstate New York’s Ithaca College when he landed the opportunity to appear in the Oscar Award-winning film Moonlight. “I took a tape of myself on my iPhone in my dorm room and sent it to this lady in New York who was like, ‘I’ll send you scripts, just put it on tape.’ We were going back and forth and I was doing countless auditions. I did maybe 35 and finally Moonlight happened. I booked it and filmed it all in 12 days … and came back and finished my freshman year of college.”
Following the success of Moonlight, Jerome landed the role of Exonerated Five member Korey Wise and saw the opportunity as a duty to help educate people on the traumas Wise and the other young men suffered. “The conversations I had with Korey, I never once spoke to him about what happened during that time,” Jerome said. “I never heard him talk about the attacks, the terrifying moments. The pain was already in the script. I never wanted to pressure Korey to talk about it or be like, ‘Okay, can you talk about it now?’”
Jerome credits Wise with helping change his perspective on life. “We just laughed and had great times. I spent a lot of personal time with Korey and he taught me to be me in a way,” Jerome said. “I think that personal connection gave me the motivation to put everything I understood about acting and the training I had and turn it into justice for him. For me, it wasn’t about getting a paycheck and doing a dope movie that’s going up on Netflix. This was a responsibility. This was justice. I knew it wasn’t my time to act. It was my time to serve.”
As someone who lived a portion of the experiences chronicled in When They See Us, Salaam said it took several viewings for him to get past the emotions of the miniseries and see its lessons. “It’s not until you see it for the second or third time that you start to get information from it,” Salaam said. “Even as an adult looking at the film, I’m still getting things from it. I thought I was playing chess but I was playing checkers. Even seeing the backroom meetings where they were trying to find the right mix [of lies]. The public never got to see any of the dynamics that was shown in When They See Us, so when they found out in 1989, they were looking at the case and saying, ‘Wow, it’s a slam dunk. The police found the people who did it quickly and locked them up.’ Then they began to create new laws [because of our case]. Even Hillary Clinton came out and apologized because she was primary in creating the superpredator laws.”
Having lived through an incredible life of trials and tribulations due to the American justice system, Santana was concise and intentional when discussing what Black and brown communities need moving forward. “We want an equal playing field,” Santana said. “Nothing can move without us. We don’t discourage you from being a part of the process. We don’t discourage you from wanting to be a police officer. We want you to go in those positions and take them over. Become chief of police. Become the mayor. Become the president because we need you in those positions so that they can be ran right.”
After the roar of applause from members of the lively audience at the end of the night, there was a glimmer of hope in the eyes of Welbeck and the three guests onstage. One could not help but wonder: Maybe they are finally starting to see us.