WALDORF, Md. (WJZ) — Nearly 30 years ago, the Central Park jogger case sparked a media frenzy. For a young New York City banker, a nightly jog through Central Park was part of her routine.
But one night in April 1989 that would change. Known then as the Central Park Five, five teens were convicted for her beating and rape that night.
Years later, they were freed and cleared of the charges against them.
A Maryland teen, who is the youngest Emmy nominated actor this year, helped share their powerful story.
It’s a story of heartbreaking truths meeting the power of injustice.
The Netflix series When They See Us transports us back to April 1989, in New York City, where a night in Central Park would forever change the lives of five boys and one woman.
Yusef Salaam, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Kevin Richardson– as teens– spent 12 years in prison for the brutal beating and rape of a jogger, 28-year-old Trisha Meili.
“Now that the truth is out, now people know that these were the guys that everyone thought was guilty,” 17-year-old Asante Blackk said.
Blackk is getting rave reviews and even earned an Emmy nomination for his role in the series.
The boys grew into men in prison — before Matias Reyes– a man already serving a life sentence for other rapes would confess to the Central Park jogger case.
After Reyes confessed in 2001, the city matched his DNA to DNA from the crime scene. In 2003, the accused men had their convictions vacated suing the city the same year. They weren’t awarded their $41 million settlement until 2014.
Blackk, a Waldorf native, it’s a narrative he fights every day.
“You know, you fear these types of things every day as a black man in America,” he said. “It’s your worst nightmare to be convicted of something that you did not do simply because of the color of your skin.”
Directed by Emmy award winner Ava Duvernay, known for her activism through art, the series attempts to humanize the now exonerated five. Sharing their experiences that did not survive the 1989 headlines. Asante said he first learned about the infamous case from reading the script.
“I was very shocked and very appalled,” Blackk said. “And I kinda used that anger, just from me even seeing that this has happened and put it into the script and the audition piece.”
Teaching him a lesson about the justice system.
“It’s not a system that was built for us,” he said. “[It’s taught me that] I need to know my rights. I need to have knowledge of them, to be aware of them at all times and be aware that anything that I say can be taken against me.”
And the power of storytelling.
“When the case first happened, it was all in the media everybody was saying those are the Central Park boys, those are the wildin’ boys. When they were exonerated, nobody knew about it.”
They do now. This was a powerful role for a young man who started in plays in the second grade.
That’s right. It’s the most-watched Netflix series since its debut with more than 23 million streams. That was Asante’s first acting job. Playing 14-year-old Kevin Richardson wasn’t something he took lightly.
“I kinda wanted to take that sweetness and that kindness and put that into the performance as well because you know the pain and the sorrow– that’s not all that he is,” he said.
Nicole Baker: When you look around, and you see the impact this story has had on people’s lives, through social media — what is your one word to describe how it makes you feel?
“It’s insane. I never really imagined that my first thing would be something so huge and something that has such an impact,” Blackk said. “And has started conversations as much as this has.”
When They See Us sparked undeniable emotion on social media, even inspiring others to set out on the path of truth and activism.
“I kinda wanted to take that sweetness and that kindness and put that into the performance as well because you know the pain and the sorrow– that’s not all that he is,” Blackk said.
“Art like this is very much needed. We need more art that makes people feel. And makes people want to spark change. Not even spark change on a grand scale, but makes them wanna spark change within themselves and their families. Any little impact that it can have on just one person is a victory in my mind,” he added.
When They See Us is nominated for 16 Emmys total.
Asante told WJZ he’s planning to attend college in the next year. And although he can’t share many details right now, he is already working on another project.