When They See Us, Chernobyl and the power of historical drama

Two recently released small-screen productions based on true stories — When They See Us and Chernobyl — are sparking significant reaction from viewers and demonstrating the power of historical drama.

Renewed interest in decades-old, real-life events reflected in 2 new productions

The Netflix limited series When They See Us has renewed interest in the real-life case and wrongful convictions of the Central Park Five. (Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix)

Two recently released small-screen productions based on true stories — When They See Us and Chernobyl — are sparking significant reaction from viewers and demonstrating the power of historical drama.

It's too soon to tell whether the new shows will kick off a spate of similar programming. But even without firm numbers, it's clear that viewers are responding to what the programs offer. When They See Us sparked a surge in social media interest, and Chernobyl has the highest IMDb rating (a database of film and TV rankings) ever for a TV show.

When They See Us, a four-episode Netflix film about five boys of colour wrongfully convicted of the brutal assault and rape of a Central Park jogger in 1980s New York City, chronicles the injustice of their arrests, false confessions, court proceedings and prison time.

The series also criticizes the way media handled the story about the teens, dubbed the Central Park Five, and highlights the role racism played in the case.

While Netflix doesn't typically release viewership numbers, the film's title was trending on social media when it was released two weeks ago.

Since then, the production has sparked backlash against the people behind the prosecution of the teens, comparisons to current day discrimination by the legal system, and even calls to change the Central Park Five moniker to the Exonerated 5.

"That it can reach that far, that's unprecedented," said director Ava DuVernay at a panel hosted by the Producers Guild Association Sunday in Los Angeles. "We're in new times."

DuVernay, whose civil rights film Selma and prison system documentary 13th both received Oscar nominations, said research for When They See Us included 89 interviews, court transcripts, police records and prison files.

The five teenagers spent between six and 13 years in prison before their convictions were overturned in 2002. (Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix)

Some information was obtained through official channels and other material was received in secret, she said.

"People wanted us to know things," the filmmaker said.

"So there were documents that were made available to us that we might not necessarily were supposed to have. There were things that came anonymously, and envelopes slipped to us."

When They See Us director Ava DuVernay says research for the film included 89 interviews, court transcripts, police records and prison files. (Evan Agostini/The Associated Press)

The convictions of the five men — Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise — were overturned in 2002 after a jailed serial rapist confessed to the crime.

By that time, they had spent between six and 13 years in prison beginning in their teens. After a lawsuit that dragged on for years, the city of New York settled with all five wrongfully accused for $41 million US.

Jharrel Jerome stars as Korey Wise, who was sentenced to adult prison at age 16. (Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix)

Linda Fairstein, who prosecuted the five boys in 1990, was forced to resign from multiple boards last week following strong reaction to her portrayal in the series. Her book publisher has also dropped her, and there are calls to boycott her best-selling crime novels.

The filmmakers said they asked to meet with Fairstein "to get her perspective" before the project was made.

"We reached out to her, and there were many email exchanges with her," said Jane Rosenthal, one of the film's producers and CEO of Tribeca Enterprises.

Linda Fairstein, who prosecuted the Central Park Five case before the convictions were overturned, has been dropped by her book publisher and was forced to resign from boards following strong reaction to the film. (Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images)

"She stated to us that she was getting many offers and that perhaps she wanted to talk to us because she had other offers. And she was also concerned that we were talking to the five men. So her point of view was clearly that she didn't want us talking to the five men if we were talking to her."

CBC News tried to reach Fairstein for comment but has not received a response. She has previously stated her support for the conduct of authorities involved in the case.

HBO's mini-series Chernobyl delves into the 1986 nuclear disaster through the eyes of scientists trying to piece together what happened. (HBO)

Fairstein was played by Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman, who recently pleaded guilty to charges related to rigging her daughter's SAT score in the U.S. college admissions bribery scandal. Producers said little when asked by an audience member whether Huffman's connection to the film posed an issue.

"We'd already shot [the film] by the time [Huffman's] case broke," said DuVernay, adding her goal was to stay focused on the film's story.

Oprah, an executive producer on the film, has announced she'll interview the five men during a special on June 12.

HBO's Chernobyl equally impactful

HBO's five-episode series Chernobyl examines the real-life nuclear power plant disaster near Pripyat, Ukraine (formerly part of the Soviet Union) in 1986 and subsequent fallout.

Writer-producer Craig Mazin explained on Twitter how much research went into the series, right down to a hard-to-watch episode involving (spoiler alert) the slaying of pets and livestock.

Adam Higginbotham, journalist and author of the bestselling investigative book Midnight in Chernobyl, said for younger generations in particular, the series might be their main source of knowledge on the decades-old subject.

"They weren't even alive at the time when the Cold War was taking place," said Higginbotham. "So to see this re-creation of this world that's as alien to them as the Wild West or the streets of Victorian London must be pretty remarkable."

The series takes a deep dive into history, and takes the time to break down complicated science. (HBO/Bell Media)

That might help explain an increased interest in Chernobyl tours, according to SoloEast tour operator Sergii Ivanchuk. The Canadian, who gives day tours of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and surrounding area, said he's received dozens more inquiries since the show's release.

"It has definitely helped," said Ivanchuk. "People want to know more about it."

While Higginbotham commended the realistic production and set design of Chernobyl, he also cautioned against taking a fictionalized account for more than it is.

"There's a sort of ecosystem of mythology and sort of folk tales about Chernobyl that's been generated over the last 30 years," he said. "Some of the characters' behaviour conforms much more to Hollywood archetype than it does to lived reality.

"It was a very effective drama but nobody should think that it's a documentary. "

With files from CBC's Jackson Weaver


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