Dr. Yusef Salaam brings “When They See Us” to life

By Diana Velasquez, For the Pitt News

As the lights dimmed in the William Pitt Union Assembly Room Tuesday night, the trailer for the four-part series “When They See Us” scrolled across the screen to a full house of more than 500 students and faculty.

“When They See Us,” a miniseries directed by Ava DuVernay and released on Netflix in May 2019, tells the story of the Central Park Five, five teenagers of color who were wrongly convicted for the rape and assault of a jogger in Central Park in 1989. Each and every one maintained their innocence until a confession from the true perpetrator finally came out in 2001.

One of the wrongly imprisoned boys, Yusef Salaam, now 45 years old and an accomplished author and public speaker, came to speak at Pitt Tuesday night in an event sponsored by the Pitt Program Council. Salaam began his talk by sharing his experience of being unjustly sentenced in 1990.

“This was beyond horror, this was unimaginable,” he said. “They looked at us and said ‘They had to have done it, they’re black.’”

The Central Park Five’s story has recently been thrust back into the spotlight following the release of “When They See Us.” The Netflix show cast the New York court case in a completely new light, telling a personal story about the five boys and their families instead of looking at the case from a more documentarial perspective, like in “The Central Park Five” (2012).

The series follows the journey of Salaam (Etan Herisse, Chris Chalk) along with Antron McCray (Caleel Harris, Jovan Adepo), Kevin Richardson (Asante Blackk, Justin Cunningham), Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez, Freddy Miyares) and Korey Wise (Jharrel Jerome) through every aspect of their journey.

The first two episodes of the show focus on the trial and conviction of the five, while the second two look at their adult lives in prison leading up to their exoneration. The show does not shy away from describing their brutal treatment, which included physical harassment by police officers during interviews.

The last episode of the series is dedicated almost entirely to Wise’s story — unlike the younger members of the Central Park Five, who were tried as minors and sentenced to a youth correctional facility, Wise was tried as an adult at age 16 and sentenced to 15 years of prison. Towards the end of the miniseries, viewers are shown the brutal treatment Wise experienced, including beatings, ridicule and time spent in isolation.

In his talk, Salaam recounted a moment from his own life involving Wise that was depicted in the show. In the first episode, Wise, who was not initially on the policemen’s radar when they searched for suspects, voluntarily goes down to the police station because he wanted to protect Salaam, who he had been friends with since they were young boys.

“And he just ends up getting the worst of this case,” Salaam said. “But all that he did was just come downtown to protect me.”

Salaam recounted his experience attending the Emmy Awards this year with Wise, now also a public speaker and advocate for criminal justice reform, and the three other exonerees. He recalled watching the actor who portrayed Wise, Jharrel Jerome, win Best Actor in a Limited Series. When Jerome, the first Afro-Latino man to win an Emmy, accepted his award, he dedicated it to the five men.

“Every single person in the audience stood up, turned around and was clapping. It was a beautiful thing to see,” Salaam said.

Though many have seen “When They See Us,” Ellie Simmons, lecture director of the Pitt Program Council, said she hadn’t yet watched the series. She said that the series must have added a different kind of perspective to the audience members who had seen it.

“Getting to see him speak in real life is just a whole different experience … but I’m sure [watching the miniseries] would have complimented it very well and I’m very excited to experience what it’s going to be like to watch it after I got to see him speak and get to know him a little bit,” she said.

Janine Abate, a graduate student from the School of Pharmacy, said she was amazed by Salaam’s continued optimism towards life, considering all that he had been through at such a young age.

“I think it was kind of amazing to see the transformation he talked about, coming to peace and looking back on everything that he went through,” she said. “He seems very at peace and even with his time struggling in the show in prison.”

The miniseries emphasizes Salaam’s connection to God and Islam as a key aspect of his life. DeVernay conveys how his faith kept him going in the movie, including depicting a scene where Salaam makes friends with other Muslim teenagers while in juveline detention.

Salaam said his faith remains a pillar for him to lean on to this day. In his lecture, he imparted some wisdom upon the crowd about finding one’s path in life, despite how difficult the road may be.

“There is a beauty in knowing you are here on purpose,” Salaam said. “God is not finished with you.”

Sabrina Njau, an undecided sophomore, said she felt similarly to Abate about Salaam’s lighthearted nature. She had expected more lingering anger from him, similar to the anger she had seen from all of the five and their families in the series.

“He seemed to have no hate going into it,” Njau said. “I thought there was going to be some bitterness but he seems to have found his peace with God.” 

As he concluded his talk, Salaam received a standing ovation from the crowd. There was even an echo of the show’s last scene for those who know it.

In the show, all five boys, now grown, stand before their families and supporters on a stage on a sunny day in Harlem. Heads high, they raise their linked hands up above their heads and bask in the warmth of their hard-earned triumph.