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Ava DuVernay shuts down Trump’s Central Park Five comments: ‘There’s no truth to it’

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Ava DuVernay, pictured with actor Caleel Harris on the set of “When They See Us,” her four-part series about the wrongful conviction and later exoneration of the group of teenagers known as the Central Park Five.
(Atsushi Nishijima / Netflix)

Ava DuVernay is not the least bit surprised that President Trump has doubled down on his stance regarding the men collectively labeled the Central Park Five, whose wrongful conviction in the 1989 rape and assault of Trisha Meili, and later exoneration, are recounted in the Netflix docudrama “When They See Us.”

“It’s expected,” she said with a shrug on Tuesday night, after a Women in Entertainment and Writers Guild of America West screening in Hollywood. “There’s nothing he says or does in relation to this case or the lives of black people or people of color that has any weight to it. It’s not our reality, there’s no truth to it.”

For the record:
12:45 PM, Jun. 20, 2019 A previous version of this post said that Elizabeth Lederer, the lead prosecutor in the case, was fired from her teaching post at Columbia Law School after pressure from students. Lederer chose not to seek reappointment as a part-time lecturer at the law school, the school’s director of public affairs said.

DuVernay — who created the limited series, and directed all four parts — made the comments in response to Trump’s remarks earlier Tuesday, in which he refused to admit their innocence, or to apologize for placing full-page ads in four newspapers at the time that called for the executions of five teenagers of color: Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise.

“You have people on both sides of that — they admitted their guilt,” he told reporters at the White House. “If you look at Linda Fairstein and if you look at some of the prosecutors, they think the city should have never settled that case. So, we’ll leave it at that.”

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After DuVernay responded lightheartedly to moderator Jemele Hill’s question about Trump — “I’m surprised it took so long, I was waiting every day to get a tweet!” — she asserted that the five men were always innocent, and are free today. Therefore, the focus should be “so much more than rage-tweeting back and participating in the negativity that’s so unproductive.”

“I wish I had a more juicy sound bite , but I don’t care,” she added, speaking alongside Robin Swicord and Attica Locke, who wrote episodes of the miniseries with DuVernay, Michael Starrbury and Julian Breece.

“When They See Us” spans 25 years, beginning with the teens’ first interrogations in 1989, featuring their 2002 exoneration, and culminating with the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014. Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood and Joshua Jackson are among the ensemble cast.

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The four-part Netflix project debuted on May 31 to critical acclaim and soon led to real-world fallout for the authorities involved. Fairstein, the head of the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan district attorney’s office at the time of the case, and who had prospered in her second career as a crime novelist, was dropped by her book publisher and her agency after a viewer-led petition went viral. (It currently has more than 200,000 signatures.) She also resigned from her board positions at Vassar College and charitable organizations God’s Love We Deliver and Safe Horizon.

Fairstein subsequently penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed calling “When They See Us” “a series so full of distortions and falsehoods as to be an outright fabrication. … Ms. DuVernay does not define me, and her film does not speak the truth.”

Similarly, Elizabeth Lederer, the lead prosecutor in the case, chose not to seek reappointment as a part-time lecturer at Columbia Law School, after a petition by the Columbia University Black Students’ Organization calling for her removal received nearly 10,000 signatures. Students previously pressed the university to remove Lederer in 2013, without success.

Why are such steps of “restorative justice” only happening now, even though the Central Park Five were exonerated by DNA evidence and a confession from the true perpetrator in 2002 and were the subject of a well-received Ken Burns documentary in 2012?

Locke explained that this project in particular might be resonating with audiences to the point of demanding action because of its detailed exploration of gaslighting.

“We are living in a time of cognitive dissonance, which is how you have Linda Fairstein’s ass talking all the stuff she’s talking about,” Locke said. “Lies [are] so easily bent to where you question your own sanity,” she continued. “That’s another reason why I think it resonates in this particular time: We are living in another time where we are being gaslit on a daily … basis.”

“This exact thing could happen, and things that are very similar to this are happening right now as we sit here,” Swicord added.

DuVernay also shared that she has grown close to the five free men, texting them almost daily.

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“They’re all different, they’re all beautiful, and they’ve taught me so much over the years,” she said. “It’s an honor to know them. It’s a privilege.”

ashley.lee@latimes.com

Twitter: @cashleelee


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