Last Friday, Netflix released a limited series called When They See Us, which saw only one publicity post on the official @netflix account. If you spent the weekend binge-watching it like I did, you’re probably interested in these breakout stars. Most of the actors, save Michael K. Williams (from 12 Years A Slave) and Jharrel Jerome (from Moonlight), are breakout stars, so naturally I was interested to see how the public received these boys on Instagram. Before that, a comment on the history of the crime as well as race representation on international television is necessary.
The Central Park Five: A Brief History
In 1989, five teenagers of African American and Latin American descent were arrested and charged with attempted murder, rape, assault, robbery, and riot for a crime committed in Central Park. A 28 year old woman named Trisha Meili had been raped and beaten in the park just after 9PM, and the 5 boys (aged between 14 to 16 years old at the time) were sentenced to 5-15 years. This became one of the most widely reported and popularised crimes in the 80s, and continues to capture public and media attention till this day. In 2001, convicted serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes came forward and confessed to the crime: a full 12 years after the police and the jury put 5 innocent boys away for a heinous act they didn’t commit.
In 2012, a documentary called The Central Park Five, inspired by Sarah Burns’s undergraduate thesis on racism in the media coverage of the event, premiered at Cannes. It was well received and on May 31st 2019, Netflix rolled out a TV series titled When They See Us based on this same series of events.
People of Colour on TV
Being a testament to real life events, it is natural that the choice of cast be as close as possible to those originally involved. Netflix hasn’t pulled a Jordan Peele, but it is important to recognize how the media — once a tool to implicate certain groups of people in society — is now being used to exonerate them. Television and social media play such a large role in forming our perceptions of select communities, and it is important to advocate for platforms (in this case television) that undo the prejudices and stereotypes that are often so inherent to law and order.
Netflix did not channel a lot of resources into the advertising for this show (as it has with other series) apart from this one post 9 days prior to the premiere:
The Actors on Instagram
Read on to acquaint yourself with these fast-growing actors on Instagram. Their growth is so dynamic and rapid that it has actually been hard to keep up; every time I refresh the server I see new numbers.
The 5 boys (in both teen and adult form) are played by Asante Blackk, Justin Cunningham, Caleel Harris, Jovan Adepo, Ethan Herisse, Chris Chalk, Jharrel Jerome, Marquis Rodriguez, and Freddy Miyares. I haven’t included them all in the list, but here are 5 that particularly stood out.
1 – @asanteblackk
Blackk stars as the young Kevin Richardson, and he plays the role heartbreakingly. As a trumpet prodigy who comes from a humble family background, he is a sweet young boy who ends up getting embroiled in a fiasco he could never have imagined.
At the start of May he had 2.5K followers on Instagram (BOP = Beginning of Period), and this number more than quadrupled over the weekend.
Post-premiere he was also followed by @zendaya, and I am certain that this is but the beginning of his fame and acting career. Before May, his top performing post had only 600 likes, but now he averages 3,000 likes and his top 4 posts are all related to the show.
2 – @thecaleelharris
Caleel Harris plays Antron McCray, alongside Michael Williams who plays his father. His following has more than doubled since the start of the weekend, averaging a 24% growth rate in the last 2 days alone.
Here is his top performing post this year, coming in really close to the second-runner up: a picture of his 15th birthday cake. I suppose some things don’t change even with fame.
3 – @jovanadepo
Adepo plays McCray as an adult, and prior to the show’s premiere, he had slightly less than 5K followers and only 3 posts.
This is interesting considering he is not new to the scene, and is best known for his role as Michael Murphy on HBO’s The Leftovers. What is worth noting, however, is that Adepo has gained a handful of followers earlier month, likely from the show’s collateral making its rounds on social media. Would Adepo’s following be higher if Netflix had marketed the show the same way they had with Russian Doll and Riverdale? Perhaps.
This next graph clearly shows the peak in growth in the last 3 days since the show has aired.
While he still only averages about 6K followers now, you have to admit that the climb is pretty impressive and is likely to continue that way as more people start watching.
4 – @jharreljerome
Jerome plays both the young and older Korey Wise, who goes from being a loyal friend and love-struck boyfriend with a learning disability to a man who is brutally beaten — both physically and emotionally — by the prison system. We feel for him when he struggles to read a confession he didn’t write in front of the court, and is sent to Rikers Island at just 16.
His performance is stunning, and this likely explains why his audience growth is so impressive.
Jerome gained 12K followers in just 2 days — that is an average of 4 followers each minute since the show premiered on Netflix.
Here is his top performing post this year: a picture portrait alongside the real Korey Wise.
5 – @freddymiyares
Last but not least is Miyares who plays adult Raymond Santana. Miyares has the largest growth rate of all — 255% in two days — but he is such a gorgeous man with such a precise beard line so are we even surprised?
This is not his top performing post nor is it related to the show but I’m leaving it here anyway because why not. Miyares gives me Puerto Rican Ezra Miller vibes and I am here for it.
He also plays the role of Santana very sensitively, and is able to both distinguish and integrate his experiences as a marginalized man in the Bronx with that of his African American counterparts.
The growth rate on all these accounts is impressive considering the lack of publicity surrounding the show, except on the cast’s own social media platforms. The series is split into 4 parts approximating an hour each and is incredibly worth the watch. The show also features peripheral one-off characters that viewers might recognise from other laudable titles like On My Block — another racially sensitive, important series featuring a predominant African American and Latin American cast.
It is necessary to recognise our collective past, and we look mostly to the screen to dramatise these events for our consumption and understanding. I am looking forward to the future of these breakout stars and the other forms of art they will bring our way.