By Jessica Zafra
IT STARTS with a phone call in the dead of night, then a visit to the morgue where the body of an Iraq war veteran named Matt Skokie waits to be identified. Skokie’s house in Modesto, California had been broken into, leaving him dead and his wife Gwen in a coma. His father Russ confirms his identity then goes to the bathroom, where he sobs and wails like a wounded animal. Russ’s grief is painful to watch, but the camera looks on pitilessly. This refusal to look away from the uncomfortable truth or allay the viewer’s distress is what distinguishes American Crime on ABC from the recognizable network offering. Cable and online streaming services may be winning the battle for prestige TV but the mainstream hasn’t given up completely.
The opening scenes suggest that we’re in for an investigative drama somewhere between CSI and True Detective. But the only detectives in sight bring no clarity to the case. Showrunner John Ridley is less interested in the personal stories of victims and perpetrators than in the broader drama of American society. If you saw a single cable news program this year, you know that the big story in the US (and now in Europe as it deals with migration) is race. Young black men choked or shot by the police, black churchgoers gunned down — 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, that great nation built by immigrants is still fraught with racial tensions.
Ridley won an Oscar for the screenplay of 12 Years A Slave, in which we witnessed the racial divide through the eyes of a black man kidnapped and sold into slavery. Here Ridley’s protagonist is a white woman fighting for justice for her dead son, who realizes belatedly that she is a racist. Felicity Huffman, her face hardened by sorrow and rage, her voice scraped with bitterness, plays the grieving mother Barb Hanlon.
Barb — the name is not an accident — is an unrepentantly repulsive character. Upon hearing that the suspects include Mexican-Americans, she concludes that they are “illegals.” She is spiteful towards her ex-husband Russ, and even if she has every reason to hate him we’re inclined to take his side. After a black man is arrested for her son’s murder, she pushes the state prosecutor to call it a hate crime. Barb rages at the police and at the public, claiming that if it had been a black man killed by a white man, they would pay more attention. She clings to her image of her son as an upstanding citizen and war hero, even if she knows this to be untrue.
Huffman alienates us at every turn, and yet she is so compelling as a strong woman demanding justice that we feel for her. We don’t like her, and we don’t have to like her. It’s an awesome performance that could blow everyone away, but the rest of the cast rises to meet her.
Timothy Hutton’s Russ is Barb’s opposite: likeable, weak, desperately trying to make amends for his past sins. (His bald spot is practically a message from my youth.) You root for Russ, you wish that for once he would be the hero, but he just doesn’t have it in him. Hutton doesn’t aim for pity, but for redemption.
Richard Cabral is excellent as Hector Tontz, a low-level gang member who claims to have knowledge of the murder. Oily and goatish, Hector’s goal is to avoid extradition to Mexico, where he has been charged with murder. Whenever Hector speaks, you can hear the gears turning in his head as he invents lie after lie. The police investigation also nets Tony Gutierrez (Johnny Ortiz), a sheltered teenager whose father Alonzo (Benito Martinez) had migrated from Mexico. Alonzo’s goal is to be accepted by the white Americans and not be lumped with “those others.” So badly does Alonzo want to be regarded as an “insider” that when the police arrest Tony, Alonzo tells him to answer all their questions instead of demanding a lawyer. His trust in the system gets Tony jailed.
In American Crime there is no laughter or comfort. The victims are not the people their parents thought they were. At first Gwen’s parents Tom and Eve Carlin (W. Earl Brown and Penelope Miller) deal with the possibility that their comatose daughter had been raped. When Tom, a devout Christian, learns that Gwen had consensual sex with multiple partners, he grows to hate his daughter.
Amid all this despair and hostility there is love, profound and unshakeable, and it’s between junkies. The murder suspect, a black man named Carter Nix (Elvis Nolasco), lives with a white woman, Aubry Taylor (Caitlin Gerard). Before their arrest they live in terrible squalor, but they’re happy because they have each other. And meth.
Aubry escapes into a dream world she cobbled together out of photos of happy multiracial couples torn out of magazines. One of the ironies in American Crime is that the only people who experience the kind of overwhelming, self-sacrificing love everyone aspires to are damaged beyond repair. It’s fascinating to watch Aubry lie and scheme so she can be with Carter — when it seems her far-fetched plan might actually work, she sabotages it by stopping for drugs.
Each episode offers a little more information about the characters, a bit more insight into the judicial process, and more gasoline for the racial conflagration. Barb gets the support of Nancy Staumberg (Lili Taylor), a woman whose own son had been murdered. Aliyah Shadeed (Regina King) — Carter’s sister, the former Doreen Nix — organizes Carter’s defense with the support of the Muslim community, fueling more of Barb’s “you people” outbursts.
If you require clear-cut endings, prepare for disappointment. We never find out who the murderer is. Barb never becomes a nice person. Barb and Russ don’t get back together. Carter and Aubry don’t live happily ever after. American Crime is a grim, nuanced portrait of race and justice. Yes, the truth is a bummer.