The critically acclaimed Netflix series “When They See Us” has reframed one of the most significant cases in U.S. history: The Central Park Five. The series focuses on a group of five black and brown teenagers wrongfully convicted of the rape of a Central Park jogger in 1989. One of the actors in the series, Dexter McKinney, is from the southside of Syracuse. In this week’s Victory Over Violence, Jennifer Sanders sat down with McKinney to hear his inspiring story.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — Every week, the goal of Victory Over Violence is to shift the narrative of communities often defined by violence and poverty. In that quest, we meet people who are transforming the community by simply walking in their destiny and not letting circumstances define their success.
Dexter McKinney is doing just that. Not only an actor and global entrepreneur, he’s a positive force, transforming lives wherever he goes.
At the age of 33, he’s just getting started.
Garfield Street on Syracuse’s southside is home for McKinney.
“For me, it was such a blessing because I got so much out of it, it was obviously tough there’s a lot of obstacles and hurdles you have to clear to successfully make it out of here. I was fortunate in a lot of ways I had people who looked out for me in a lot of ways and treated me as this kid is going to make it,” McKinney said.
They may have never known just how prophetic those words would be, but before we get to his acting career, let’s start from the beginning.
“My friends, my family, my cousins lived lifestyles that were conducive to surviving right here and if you look behind you, you’ll see a police camera, if you look there you’ll see another one so there’s a reason for that right? And a lot of things helped me to get to where I am today,” McKinney said.
Starting with his family. When you walk inside their home, you immediately feel the love and the support.
“I just always had that structure and you can take it for granted saying we are living this way, I wish we had a bigger house and more cars and lived on a better side of town but at the core of what we do have is unconditional love,” McKinney said.
They supported his dream when he was hit with the acting bug at Edward Smith Elementary. They encouraged him to dream big and do bigger.
Equally as important to him was a college education, which started right across the highway at Syracuse University.
“You can’t see it now, it’s kind of symbolic, a lot of people from this same environment can’t see it when the leaves aren’t there, we don’t make that connection of this is a logical next step or this is a good move,” said McKinney.
And perhaps the lessons he learned outside the classroom were just as valuable as the ones inside the classroom.
“We went to NYC and one of my friends was on parole, we got into a fight, my friend got stabbed and he ended up going to Rikers Island but with my college ID and SU ID, I got completely different treatment,” McKinney said.
Those tough lessons changed his life. He went on to earn two Master’s degrees from SU, but that experience would serve as inspiration for him years later on the set of “When They See Us.”
“I play Porter, who is a guy who is in and out of prison and has a rapport with the corrections officers,” McKinney said.
His character is just one of many eliciting a wave of emotions from love to sadness to anger to hope. Perhaps a visual embodiment of art imitating life.
“As much trauma and despair that surrounds it, there’s so much wonderful and beautiful people that come out of this place,” McKinney said.
Raised on the southside, his career as an actor, consultant and teacher has taken him all over the world, but home is where it all started.
Although McKinney travels the world, he continues to mentor and inspire young people in Syracuse.