Ava DuVernay says she wept with the Central Park Five while screening "When They See Us"

Ava DuVernay on humanizing Central Park Five

When director and Academy Award-nominee Ava DuVernay watched her new series, "When They See Us," with the men whose stories it tells — five men who were wrongly accused as teenagers of the brutal rape of a jogger in New York City's Central Park — it was emotional for everyone.

"I've had a lot of beautiful things happen in my career. But there's nothing like sitting behind them, those five men in a small screening room, watching them watch a story we spent four years to make," DuVernay said Monday on "CBS This Morning. "They wept, I wept. They cheered, they held hands."

In 1989, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise —  black and Latino teenagers who became known as the Central Park Five — were arrested and charged with the attack on the jogger. They were convicted despite the lack of any physical evidence tying them to the crime, and served six to 13 years in prison. But in 2002, their convictions were overturned after another man confessed and DNA evidence exonerated them. They allege police coerced them into making false confessions.

Watching the Netflix dramatization, "They saw themselves and they saw each other," DuVernay said about the men's experience. "They had been so into their own story and experience, and to finally understand what all the other families and their brothers, the other men were going through, was something that really was a revelation for them."

DuVernay, who directed and co-wrote the four-part series, reflected on her decision not to use the phrase "Central Park Five" in the title. "For me I was really interested in getting underneath this moniker given to them by the police, by the prosecutors, by the press — and really to humanize these boys and ask you to see them, not just the label they'd been given," she said.  

DuVernay said it all started with a tweet that Santana sent her in 2015 that said: "what's your next film gonna be on?? #thecentralparkfive #cp5 #centralpark5 maybe???? #wishfulthinking #fingerscrossed."

While DuVernay receives many tweets, she said this one stayed with her.

"I was always riveted by this case. At the time that these boys were teenagers in Harlem, I was a teenager, grew up in Compton on the opposite coast. So I was always connected to the story," she said.

"So I DM'ed him, slid into his DMs, and I said, 'Hey, I'm coming into New York in a few months. Maybe we can get together,'" DuVernay added.

The Central Park Five never received an apology from the city, DuVernay said, though they were awarded a settlement. But as DuVernay pointed out, "Money can't buy back your youth. Money can't bring back fractured families."

"As you continue to watch the piece, you really see the effect of this ordeal, this incarceration on the family. Family structures broken apart. No amount of money can get that back. So they're making their way through," she said.

The filmmaker said she thinks a Central Park Five-type of situation could "absolutely" happen again today.

"The question is, can we interrogate what's happened in the past to safeguard ourselves from it happening in the future? That's why I'm such a student of history. I like to embed historical context in my work. We can only better the situation if we realize the details of what happened. So that's what we invite people to check out," DuVernay said.

"When They See Us" premieres Friday, May 31 on Netflix.