John Ridley is at the top of his game. The Academy Award-winning screenwriter of 2013’s critically acclaimed film 12 Years a Slave is helming the highly anticipated ABC drama American Crime, which premieres March 5. Featuring an all-star cast including Timothy Hutton, Felicity Huffman, Benito Martinez and Regina King, American Crime explores the complexities of race through the lens of a criminal trial.
The plot revolves around the shooting of a young white couple by a person of color in Modesto, Calif. The husband is killed and the wife is critically injured, and possibly sexually assaulted, as detectives and distraught relatives descend on the sleepy town to investigate the violent acts. The investigation, along with an overzealous pursuit of justice, ends in the arrests of several people, leading to a trial that is viewed from the perspective of a diverse set of characters.
Ridley, who is executive producer of the series, lays bare the ugliness of racial bias, wealth and privilege as viewers discover who these characters are and why they matter in this seemingly simple story of crime and justice. Recent high-profile social-justice cases (such as the killings of Michael Brown, Renisha McBride and Eric Garner) dominating news headlines suggest that the series will be as timely as it is controversial.
While Ridley knew that the show would be controversial because of the hot-button topics it addresses, he admits that he wasn’t sure that the series’ subject matter would remain relevant.
“You know, I found myself, for the first time, having conversations with my son where I thought, ‘OK, well, maybe this is the last time. And we’re past certain things.’ And then you’re in the middle of production and there’s a different kind of pain when you realize it’s Ferguson, it’s what’s going on in New York. And we’re not past certain things,” he says. “And then it becomes, for me, a sense of, you really gotta be, even though our story is fiction, you gotta be honorific with things that are happening, ’cause there are people out there who are going through this [precarious type of situation] for real,” he adds.
The relevance of the story to today’s society isn’t the only reason Ridley took on the task of bringing American Crime to the small screen. He also wanted a chance to create television that is more cinematic in look, style and storytelling. Pursuing his desire to develop and write complex characters against a backdrop of racially infused life situations also gave him “the opportunity to dig deeply into these characters and render them as characters, not caricatures.”
Ridley’s writing underscores his interest in offering real perspectives on a variety of subjects, including what it means to live in a world that some consider post-racial. He acknowledges that the term “post-racial” means different things to different people but says it doesn’t really work for him.
“I have to be honest. I’m not quite ready to be post-racial in the sense that now that people of color are coming to the fore, why is it that when you say ‘post-racial,’ it’s as if you’re saying, ‘Well, let’s not talk about that’?” says Ridley.
“To me, I hear it’s a certain group of people saying, ‘Yeah, OK. Hey, let’s not talk about your stories, you know. We spent 200 years talking about our stories. We don’t really want to hear yours. Let’s just all get along.’ I think having pride in one’s history and one’s stories, sharing those stories, being aware of other stories, is different from disagreeing with other stories or not wanting to hear stories. You can be pro something without being anti something else,” he adds.
Ridley’s perspective on a post-racial society is reflected in the viewpoints of some of the diverse characters who are grappling with one intense situation (addiction) after another (senseless murder). You have the devastated families of the victims who are dealing with the crime in myriad ways. While Barb, the mother of the murder victim, played wickedly by Felicity Huffman, is hell-bent on getting justice at any cost, the mother of the survivor, Eve (Penelope Ann Miller), has a completely different approach to dealing with the event, one that mainly involves prayer. Barb’s sense of justice is inextricably tied to dominant ideologies about society, while the perceptions of Eve and her husband, Tom (W. Earl Brown), are tied to dominant ideas about Christianity.
Bringing these complex stories to the small screen in a way that is cinematic is a tall order for anyone, particularly in a televisual landscape that has raised the bar on all aspects of production—and with audiences who are demanding more from television as a genre.
“Whether it’s broadcast TV, cable or streaming, everybody has upped their game in terms of storytelling, in terms of the visuals. So for me in this space, in some ways, it was amazingly challenging just because there’s so much good product that’s out there. It’s so sharp. It’s so smart. Audiences have just demonstrated an amazing capacity for complicated storytelling, complicated characters and deep narrative. I just believe that when we were going to put this together, we were going to have to use all the tools of cinema.”
Many might turn away from this challenge, but not Ridley, who wants the characters and stories to have emotional honesty. He also wants the series to pose questions about society, but not to answer them.
“We’re trying to examine certain psychologies that are not different from what is happening in a very real space. And we’re doing it in an intellectual way, an honest way, a way that doesn’t proselytize, a way that doesn’t end up being just my opinion, my own bias about things,” says Ridley. “We want to ask questions in a way that other people are asking along with us.”
Editor’s note: American Crime premieres Thursday, March 5, on ABC at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.