In the Spring of 1989, a white female jogger was savagely beaten, sexually assaulted and left for dead in New York City’s Central Park. Before she introduced herself to the world as Trisha Meili, years later, she was known publicly under the protected alias as The Central Park Jogger. Ava DuVernay’s limited mini-series When They See Us, masterfully tells the real-life story of how five teenage black and Latino boys (Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana Jr., and Yusef Salaam) were wrongfully accused and convicted of the crime. The four-part series shows how the boys, aged 14-16, were handpicked by police and held in police custody (the majority of the time without an adult family member present) for over a two day period before the boys were coerced into videotaped confessions. Those confessions led to a media frenzy, sparking panic and outrage that would label them as The Central Park Five. In the court of public opinion, they were nothing more than a gang of hoodlums and received hate mail, death threats and ads in all major city newspapers where America’s current President called for the boys to be executed. Despite conflicting “confessions” and no physical evidence or DNA linking them to the crime scene, they were found guilty and went on to spend between 5-13 years in prison.
One of those young men was Korey Wise. Wise was 16 at the time of his arrest and was sent straight to Rikers Island, the most notorious maximum security prison in the country. The others were sent to juvenile detention centers until they aged out and were transferred to adult prisons. All five would be exonerated of the charges when the real perpetrator, Metis Reyes, felt compelled enough to confess to his crime after a chance encounter with Wise, who was still incarcerated. DNA evidence linked him solely to the crime scene and after a decade’s fight, the men were awarded a $41 million settlement as restitution from the City of New York to share between them.
While many are focusing on the amazing survival of the five men and the stellar performances of the actors who portrayed them in When They See Us, another character has also garnered a great deal of attention. Marci, Korey Wise’s sister. A trans woman, Marci is verbally and emotionally abused by her and Korey’s mother. Unlike their mother, Korey adores and accepts Marci and the two share a special bond with Marci acting as a second mother and source of support to him. Her life was tragically cut short during Korey’s time in prison –causing a major emotional breakdown for him in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the series. Model and actress, Isis King, skillfully plays the role of Marci, tugging at viewers heartstrings as she steals each scene.
As a transwoman of color, King’s ability to transform into the role of Marci was effortless since she was able to pull from the unique personal experience the two shared. When speaking with King on her preparation for the film and the significance of a Marci in Korey’s life, King explained to STYLECASTER that with the perception of trans women historically being negative, it was time to showcase the opposite.
“I am honored that Ava included Marci because she didn’t have to,” King emphasizes. “For her to include Marci in the way that she did honored not just the relationship of the siblings but also sparks a larger conversation.”
When discussing the work she did to embody the character of Marci and understanding the relationship between the siblings, King explained that while she did not get a chance to actually speak with the real Korey Wise prior to working on the series, there was an ironic connection between herself the Wise family that she discovered after the film was released on Netflix.
“Outside of the script, I didn’t know anything about Marci but ironically, recently I received a DM from Marci’s younger sister,” she explained. “Before shooting, Ava told me that there was another Wise sibling who transitioned. Niecy Nash, who played our mother–her character was pregnant at the beginning of the series. She eventually had the baby, a boy. He later transitioned. I knew both of them from my time living in New York City shelters and hanging on the Pier. I was introduced to them through the ballroom scene. I actually knew the younger sister before she transitioned and we met way back in 2007. She reminded me of who she was and thanked me for doing a good job playing her sister. It was a full-circle moment for me. I got chills when her sister wrote me that message.”
When King was finally introduced to the real Korey Wise at the series wrap party, he praised her work and expressed his excitement that she was portraying his beloved sister. King knew how important her role was, but she had no idea that the character of Marci would impact audiences around the globe. “Marci’s life was cut short and it’s a potential reality that trans women face daily,” she said with conviction. “The way that people treat others just for being who they are is horrible. Right now in Dallas, there’s a string of murders and the victims are trans women of color. I think it shows a lot about the space of the black community. Because of the stigma of being a trans woman and the thought that all are sex workers, it seems as if we are easily discarded. We are sought after for that purpose–to harm.”
To combat this time of hate and violence, King says creating a safer and more accepting environment during childhood would spark the change needed. “We need to be taught at a young age to accept everyone and not reprimand children who are different,” she articulated. “Having that freedom allows them to have a safe haven in the house that will allow them to create safer spaces externally. It will eradicate the homelessness issue my community faces. The need to resort to sex work won’t be there any longer. It’s coming from the outside world, but it starts within our own communities. Opportunities are constantly denied to trans women but black people are upset when we are profiled or judged by the color of our skin by others, yet we turn our backs on our trans family. This is why Marci being a positive influence in Korey’s life is important to show.”
Though the character of Marci is loved, the LGBTQ and trans rights activist in King says more needs to be done and on a grander scale. “I knew the basic story of the men but was shocked to find out that Trump was involved in some way,” she exclaimed. “He was causing trouble then and is still causing trouble, especially for the LGBT community. More public figures need to step up and use their voice on our behalf and not just people within the community. More white people, more cis-gendered people, more politicians –everyone needs to align themselves and rid themselves of the fear of being ostracized for speaking out. Our white trans community needs to speak out because we are in this fight together or are supposed to be.”
Being out as a trans woman for the past 11 years since making her historical debut as the first trans woman to compete on America’s Next Top Model, King says though there has been progress –there is still a long way to go.“In communities of color, transitioning isn’t necessarily a topic of discussion, nor is it widely accepted,” she explained. “If you go even deeper within our community, specifically within the church, there are so many contradictions. Infidelity is forgiven, there’s mismanagement of money. You can do anything in the black church and get away with it except transition. There’s such a stigma attached to being transgender. However, showcasing who Marci was, humanized an entire community.”
Aside from being trans, King was able to relate to Marci in many other ways. “I’m the oldest child and so was Marci,” she said. “The oldest child has it the hardest and I truly believe Marci’s goal was to make it easy for Korey. She was his voice of reason, as I am for my little brothers. Marci was that positive influence of support in the home even once Korey was away. His devastating reaction to her death proves that.”
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Although Korey and Marci shared such a close bond and she was such an important fixture in his life, King notes that with such a tough task of trying to cover the details related to the case for the boys, Marci could have easily been left out. “There’s always room for improvement,” she explained. “When I was on Top Model and starting out, it was so different. It was just me and Laverne (Cox) doing this. Cyberbullying was just starting and I wasn’t even accepted by the cis-women in the ANTM house. Even after the show, I received so many nasty comments and threats. But we have come far. Media is getting a little better. I like what POSE on FX is doing by providing the platform they are for the community.”
King is making it her mission to continue to add to the advancement of the transgender community by continuing to use her voice to make raise awareness to these issues.“It’s PRIDE month so I am extremely busy teaming up with organizations,” she boasted proudly. “If you follow my social media, you know I go in about LGBT rights and injustices of all kinds. And I won’t stop. One of my last posts on Twitter read: “Who would think casting a trans woman to play a trans woman would be groundbreaking?!”
“Often times, we have been left out of the conversation, but we are slowly but surely seeing more. The role of Marci happened and it’s sparking a conversation. It would be a disservice to not continue the conversation.”
When They See Us is currently streaming on Netflix.