clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Director Ava DuVernay’s brilliant work gets shortchanged at Emmys

It doesn’t make sense that “Chernobyl” beat out “When They See Us” for the best limited series honor.

71st Emmy Awards - Arrivals
Antron McCay, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Ava DuVernay, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam attend the 71st Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on Sept. 22, 2019, in Los Angeles, California.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

I was really looking forward to the Emmys.

I just knew the gut-wrenching limited drama series “When They See Us” would walk away with an armful of awards.

After all, it hit all the benchmarks.

The docuseries chronicled one of the biggest miscarriages of American justice in modern times: the wrongful convictions of five black and Latino teenagers for the 1989 rape and brutal beating of a jogger in Central Park.

Directed by Ava DuVernay — the brilliant female filmmaker who also directed “13th,” a documentary about the criminalization of African American males — the four-part series pulled me in so completely, I stayed glued to the screen until it ended.

Frankly, it felt like DuVernay was cheated.

Although the series received 16 nominations, it was snubbed 14 times, winning an off-air Emmy for casting, while Jharrel Jerome, who portrayed Korey Wise, won the lead actor award.

Jerome made history, becoming the youngest person and the first Afro Latino ever to be so honored.

Like the audience, I clapped wildly when his name was announced.

Wise, who at 16-years-old was the oldest of the five teens falsely accused, got the worst of it because he served time at an adult prison where he suffered tremendous violence at the hands of racist inmates and guards.

While the public could leave these teens behind once the headlines faded, DuVernay forced us to see them — really see them — before, during and after their lives were interrupted.

Now known as the “Exonerated Five,” Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Wise walked the purple carpet with DuVernay and were in the audience when Jerome’s award was announced.

2019 Netflix Primetime Emmy Awards After Party
Jharrel Jerome attends the 2019 Netflix Primetime Emmy Awards After Party at Milk Studios on Sept. 22, 2019, in Los Angeles, Calif.
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix

Jerome morphed into his character to the point that I didn’t recognize him when he bounded up to the stage to pick up his well-deserved honor.

After thanking his mother and others that helped him get to his big moment, Jerome acknowledged what brought him there.

“Most important, this is for the men that we know as the Exonerated Five,” Jerome said, holding up his Emmy, during his acceptance speech.

Without a doubt, DuVernay’s series had tough competition. She lost out to another powerful docuseries, “Chernobyl,” for the best limited series.

Still, I don’t get it.

Neither one of these series were for entertainment or amusement. They both were tough to watch. In fact, as much as I have raved about “When They See Us,” I know people who still can’t bear to watch this dark chapter unfold.

But “When They See Us,” is a series that finally gave the exonerated population a voice. Because no matter how much money these men have been awarded in lawsuits, nothing can restore their youthful selves.

Frankly, I couldn’t hang past the third episode of “Chernobyl.” I was put off by the oddity that the actors were speaking English while all the signage was in Russian.

This was not an oversight but a conscious decision on the part the showrunners. The gamble paid off with Johan Renck winning the award for directing for a limited series.

But I haven’t been this disappointed since Steven Spielberg was cheated out of an Oscar for “The Color Purple.”

No matter how you felt about the subject matter, the film was a thing of beauty and a triumph for Spielberg.

DuVernay is on a similar journey.

She was the first black woman to win a directing ward at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, the first to be nominated for a Golden Globe for best director and the first black woman to helm an Academy Award nominee for best picture.

With cities slowly marching toward real criminal justice reform, the timing seemed right for another breakthrough for DuVernay’s groundbreaking work.

Although DuVernay could clearly rake in millions on commercial projects, she is tackling stories that force many of us to reconsider what we think we know about our criminal justice system.

Unfortunately, that pursuit is not always valued in the same way stories like “Chernobyl” are valued.

Maybe it’s because after something as horrific as a nuclear disaster is over, we take heed.

But the railroading and false imprisonment of men of color is still being debated when it should be a matter of history.