TORONTO — When Joshua Jackson was offered a role in the Netflix miniseries “When They See Us,” he jumped at the opportunity to work with acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay.
The Vancouver-born star of “Dawson’s Creek” and “The Affair” had brushed shoulders with the Oscar-winning “Selma” director a few times, though he was mostly an admirer from afar. He once invited her to watch him on Broadway in “Children of a Lesser God,” but her packed schedule got in the way.
So when DuVernay contacted Jackson last year to gauge whether he’d be interested in playing a part in her limited series about the Central Park Five trial and rape case, the actor was surprised, to say the least.
“I was walking through my bedroom and my phone rang, and on my phone was Ava DuVernay,” Jackson recalled.
“She said: ‘I’ve got this thing I want you to do.'”
DuVernay saw him as one of the lawyers in “When They See Us,” a tragic story of racial injustice based on a 1989 case in which five teenagers, four black and one Hispanic, were falsely accused and convicted of the brutal rape of a white female jogger in Central Park.
Their trial became a media obsession in 1990 when Jackson was only a child, too young to understand the social context or the significance of Donald Trump buying full-page newspaper ads calling on the death penalty for the teens.
Long after they became adults, the five men’s convictions were vacated when an incarcerated murderer confessed to the rape. They were awarded US$41 million in a settlement with the city.
The case has come to represent inherent problems within the American criminal justice system and how racism within police departments can affect the outcome of an arrest.
When the 2012 Ken Burns documentary “The Central Park Five” began making rounds, Jackson revisited the case with the context of adulthood.
“It’s complex, and then it’s also tragically simple,” he says. “This was a concerted effort by adults to rob children of their liberty, of their youth, of their innocence.”
Jackson appears in the second episode of “When They See Us” as Mickey Joseph, a real-life defence attorney who represented one of the teens. It’s among the first times he’s played a living person, and he found Joseph to be an invaluable resource.
“Mickey’s alive and funny and a raconteur,” he said. “Literally you have walking, talking source material.”
But Jackson was especially affected by the five young actors who portray the teens, worn down by police interrogations and ultimately dragged through the justice system. Having been a teenage actor himself, most notably in “The Mighty Ducks” franchise, Jackson said he knows how difficult it must’ve been for the young actors to bear their emotions in front of a film crew of mostly strangers.
“Just about everything in your teenage life tells you ‘don’t do that,'” he said.
“For these young men to show up and be present, be raw and vulnerable… at that age, was just incredibly impressive to watch.”
With the Netflix series available to a worldwide audience, Jackson is eager to see how the conversation evolves in the coming weeks and months. He suggests viewers who aren’t unfamiliar with the Central Park Five case watch the miniseries in parts, because its emotional heft isn’t favourable to an afternoon binge.
“I watched all four on a Saturday, which is maybe not the best way to do it,” he said.
Jackson said he still grapples with the facts of the case. After meeting the five men during the production, he was impressed with their resilience “to not just survive something like this… but to thrive on the other side of it.”
“There’s no easy resolution, there’s no good reason why,” he said of the circumstances.
“It is as difficult and as ugly as it looks on its face.”
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David Friend, The Canadian Press