At this year’s Emmy Awards, Ava DuVernay walked the red carpet with Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, also known as the Central Park Five. DuVernay’s series, When They See Us, is inspired by these five men and their false conviction of sexual assault in 1989. When They See Us follows their coerced confessions, difficulties in and out of prison, and exonerations. The series received 16 Emmy nominations.
The context of awards shows is important to understanding the attendance of the Central Park Five. Programs like the Emmys may seem to primarily serve as inspiration for Buzzfeed listicles or Twitter arguments on what celebrity has aged the best, but in reality they provide an important form of promotion.
With such a high concentration of celebrities, more people are likely to tune in and watch an awards show in an effort to see someone they care about. Around 6.9 million people watched the Emmys this year which, although an all-time low, is still higher than the average for viewers of an evening program.
Attendees of awards shows know that the event will not only have above average viewership and act accordingly. Every person who passes through the red carpet is either trying to get you to watch their new show or raise awareness for their next project. The vast majority of presenters are there primarily to publicize their shows.
The amount of people who watch the Emmys and the conversations the evening inspires in the days following makes the presence of the Central Park Five powerful. With their appearance, Ava DuVernay further solidifies her goal of promoting their innocence and humanization. The more they are seen, the less the public can brush aside what happened to them. Taking these men as her guests is another step by DuVernay to give them visibility, making sure they have every opportunity to be seen.
Although celebrities have brought activists as their guests to awards shows in the past it is entirely unprecedented to infuse them into an entire press tour. Richardson, Salaam, Santana, McCray, and Wise are all dedicating some portion of their lives to social justice and Duvernay has given them a platform to let their voices be heard.
For his portrayal of Korey Wise, Jharrel Jerome won Best Actor in a Limited Series/Movie at only 21 years old. He was the only win out of the show’s 16 nominations. The power of what the series has done can be summed up in the last moments of Jerome’s speech. While accepting the award, he closes by stating “this is for the men that we know as the Exonerated Five,” which prompted a standing ovation.
The series has not only shed more light on corruption and discrimination, but it has also changed the public perception of the Central Park Five. It has rewritten the narrative that defined five young men who had years of their lives taken from them by unjust imprisonment. The public consciousness of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise has been transformed as they shift the Central Park Five to the Exonerated Five.