Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us tells the story of the 1989 Central Park jogger case and the five men who were wrongfully accused and convicted of it. The four-part event, which recently earned 16 Emmy award nominations, successfully marries the bleak vision of the American criminal justice system it depicts with a loving portrait of five kids whose childhoods were stolen from them. While DuVernay’s project rightly focuses on all five men (including Raymond Santana Jr., who first asked the Selma director to take on their story), it is the story of Korey Wise which serves as its backbone. At only 16, Wise was the oldest of the five convicted boys. He was also the one to serve the longest prison sentence. Chronicling those 12 years he was locked up, the latter half of When They See Us is an emotional indictment of a broken system and of a man who refuses to be broken by it.
Dominican-American actor Jharrel Jerome has earned his first-ever Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Wise. The Bronx-born actor played Wise both as a teenager pushed to confess to a rape he didn’t commit and later as a world-weary adult trying to keep himself sane while in prison. From the moment he first heard about the project, Jerome knew he needed to be a part of it. As he told Variety, “Being from the Bronx — being from right around the way — and being Dominican, a person of color, it was just so important to me from the moment I saw it.” Originally, he auditioned just for the part of younger Korey. Except the project he was working on required him to have a full beard on, something he knows ages him more than he’d like. By the time he shaved and got a chance to follow-up his earlier audition with a baby-faced one, DuVernay asked him to read for older Wise. She’d seen the kind of physical transformation Jerome could do and was eager to see whether his acting chops were up for the challenge. He impressed her: “I would love for you to play both,” he remembers her telling him. “I would love for you to work a little harder to play both.”
To be Kory Wise is to wake up everyday wondering how you will survive the day. I took my freedom for granted. And I never will again. pic.twitter.com/kuykjYeiDk
— Jharrel Jerome (@JharrelJerome_) July 7, 2019
It wasn’t lost on the young actor how much of a responsibility the part of Korey Wise was. “Playing Korey Wise was by far the most challenging thing for me,” he shared, during a Q&A following the first public screening of the series’ first episode in New York City in June. He didn’t mean just physically — though anyone who’s seen the final episode can attest to how different Jerome’s performance as older Wise truly is. “In general, I am pretty naive. I think I was lucky to grow up in the Bronx, but the side of the Bronx where it was all family, all love, all community. I didn’t have too many police altercations or things like that. So I had to knock that out of my head. I had to knock out that sort of naive presence and that idea because this whole project taught me so much.” In every interview he’s given since, he’s stressed his hope that everyone who watches When They See feels themselves equally informed about the injustices that men like Wise have had to deal with.
He now may only be 21, but Jerome can now boast having been a part not just of the Oscar-winning Moonlight (where he played young Kevin), but also of a miniseries that’s driving important conversations about race, policing, criminal justice, and incarceration. It’s what makes his Emmy nomination all the sweeter. Effusive about the love DuVernay and his fellow co-stars (including John Leguizamo) earned, Jerome has made it clear that the reward of being involved with When They See Us has been the impact its had on audiences worldwide. More than anything, he’s overjoyed that he was able to give Wise some of the dignity that was taken from him when he was only 16.
“To me, that’s where the real award is, to have brought Korey to the world,” Jerome told the Los Angeles Times. “To be able to portray him as a man and as a human being means more than any nomination. He inspired me in every way. He is my brother.”
When They See Us is now streaming on Netflix.