When They See Us: Netflix and Ava DuVernay settle defamation lawsuit over


Yasmin Rufo,BBC News

Getty Images Ava DuVernay attends the 96th Annual Academy Awards on March 10, 2024 in Hollywood, CaliforniaGetty Images

Netflix and filmmaker Ava DuVernay have settled a defamation lawsuit over 2019 drama series When They See Us.

They were being sued by a former New York City prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, who alleged defamation for her portrayal in the TV series.

The four-part series covered the story of five wrongly convicted black and Latino teenagers – known as the Central Park Five – who were accused of assaulting and raping a woman in Central Park in 1989.

The trial was set to start next week, but a deal has now been reached between both parties.

DuVernay said their had been no financial settlement with Fairstein, however the streamer has agreed to donate $1m (£780,000) to the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate people who’ve been wrongly convicted.

Netflix have also agreed to make changes to the episodes.

The streamer said it would move a disclaimer that some events have been dramatised to the beginning of each episode, instead of it featuring in the credits as it had previously.

The disclaimer now reads: “While the motion picture is inspired by actual events and persons, certain characters, incidents, locations, dialogue, and names are fictionalized for the purposes of dramatization.”

Industry insiders have been following the case to assess the impact it may have on rules around biographical TV shows and films.

Fairstein was in charge of sex crimes in Manhattan at the time and brought a lawsuit forward in 2020 alleging that she was depicted in a “false and defamatory manner in nearly every scene” and portrayed as a “racist, unethical villain”.

Getty Images Linda FairsteinGetty Images

‘Not willing to face a jury’

A statement from writer and director DuVernay, who also directed Selma and Disney’s A Wrinkle In Time, said she wanted the case to go to trial and believed that Fairstein was responsible for the investigation and prosecution that resulted in wrongful convictions.

“Linda Fairstein decided that she was not willing to face a jury of her peers,” the director’s statement said.

“As the head of the Manhattan Sex Crimes unit, Linda Fairstein was in the precinct for over 35 hours straight while the boys were interrogated as adults, often without parents present.”

DuVernay added that there had ben “no payment to [Fairstein] or her lawyers of any kind”.

‘Setting historical record straight’

In a statement Fairstein said that settling the case before trial “was not an easy one” but it was “about setting the historical record straight that the villainous caricature invented by the defendants and portrayed on screen was not me”.

She added she was confident she would have presented a “compelling case to the jury”.

The former prosecutor, played by Felicity Huffman, has a major role in the Emmy-winning series.

When They See Us shows Fairstein as the woman in charge of the investigation into the case and appears in three of the four episodes.

DuVernay said that she and Netflix rejected Fairstein’s initial demands for a cash payout and no money has been paid to Fairstein in the settlement.

Who were the Central Park Five?

One spring evening in 1989, a group of around 30 teenagers were hanging out in Central Park, New York.

Some of them were causing serious trouble – including badly hurting others in the park and harassing homeless people.

The same night, a 28-year-old white woman, Trisha Meili, had been out jogging in the park.

She was found beaten and raped and was in a coma for 12 days – and in that time, the case of the Central Park Jogger would grip New York City.

Five young black and Hispanic men, aged between 14 and 16, would be found guilty and jailed for the crime.

They became known as the Central Park Five.

But they never committed the crime.