Sunday, March 8, 2015
Pilot Review: American Crime
American Crime is often an uncomfortable show to watch. It's unafraid of throwing hard issues in its audience faces, the exact kind of issues we typically try to avoid talking about: race, class, gender, addiction, poverty. It's the kind of show that aims to start a conversation, to put an intelligent, semi-balanced face to abstract but emotional ideas about how society shapes our views of ourselves and everyone around us. It will make you angry; it will make you sad; it will annoy you and piss you off. But it will, undoubtedly, make you feel something.
There's no easy approach to talking about American Crime. It's like a television version of an even more contemporary Crash in that the pilot seems to be telling a bunch of disparate storylines that are all connected by the end of the episode. Barb (Felicity Huffman) and Russ (Timothy Hutton) are a long-divorced couple whose son was found murdered in his own home, his wife assaulted and left for dead. Alonzo Gutierrez (Benito Martinez, House of Cards) owns a car repair shop, where he is working on restoring a classic car with his son Tony (Johnny Ortiz), and raises his kids to be respectful, productive members of society and not gang rats like the other teenagers in the neighborhood. Carter (Elvis Nolasco), a black man, and Aubry (Caitlin Gerard), his white girlfriend, are two homeless meth addicts trying to feed their addictions by any means necessary. And finally there's Hector (Richard Cabral, himself a former gang member), a gangbanger and drug dealer who buys merchandise with stolen credit cards and then sells it for cash. By the time the pilot wraps up, Hector, Carter, and Tony (and possibly Aubry) are all suspects in the murder of Matt Skokie, because the white, middle class, suburban ex-military man had a little side business going that connects him to the suspects.
The issue of race is a the forefront of American Crime. Matt's murder is considered "racially motivated" since the suspects are all people of color, and since Matt seemed to live an idyllic, completely typical life with his wife. Upon finding out from the police that her son's murderer is likely "Hispanic," Barb goes to a journalist to keep Matt's story fresh in the public's mind and talks about the "illegal" immigrant "Mexican" who killed her son. It's a fascinating concept raised multiple times by creator/writer/director John Ridley (recent Academy Award winner for 12 Years a Slave who cut his teeth writing for 1990s sitcoms like Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), that we can be told one thing but hear something completely different once bias is introduced, in his radiant script. Alonzo, for a further example, is seen as wanting to be white because he doesn't speak in affected street language, because he came to America "correctly," and because he shields his children from the life of gangs, drugs, and crime. These are just two instances in which internal prejudice and judgment subtly rise to the surface. In Barb's mind, anyone who isn't white is "those people," a harsh reality that comes from her past raising her children in government housing after Russ gambled away the family's money. She was the minority then, and it clearly colored her opinion of the world in a negative way. But rather than using her first-hand knowledge of how it feels to be the minority and the awful treatment she received, she pushes back and clings to anger instead, repeating the cycle that first damaged her worldview.
Further, the relationship between Carter and Aubry explores the prejudice against interracial couples; in one of the most affecting shots of the pilot, Ridley sweeps over the walls of their hovel and we see it is plastered with magazine photos of beautiful, vibrant, young couples comprised of black men and white women... a stark contrast to Aubry's stringy hair and bruised face (the result of an attack in a nightclub by two black women who took her stash) and to Carter's cracked lips and baggy eyes. Did the drugs get them here? Or did they turn to drugs as a reprieve from something else? And later, when the two are arrested for Matt's murder, Carter is swiftly taken away in cuffs while Aubry's wound are treated by a nurse who assumes Carter caused the injuries. So they also open up the discussion about gender, in that Aubry is seen as a weak victim of abuse (and I can see the system wanting to blame Carter for her drug use as well), while Carter is a volatile murderer, junkie, and woman-hater, both because of his skin color and his gender.
The show itself is so raw and emotional and relevant, that the rest seems almost inconsequential. But rest assured that this cast is more than up to the task of bringing Ridley's characters and ideas to life. Felicity Huffman is gruff and impassioned, and she will likely be a frontrunner for an Emmy nomination for her work here. Timothy Hutton has the pilot's greatest moment, just five or so minutes in, when he identifies his son's body and lets out a guttural, heaving sob in the precinct bathroom. Benito Martinez and Johnny Ortiz play so well against each other as father and son, and the scene in which Alonzo vouches for his son's character at the police station, is a highlight; Ortiz's ear-shattering, gut-wrenching shriek as he is arrested for murder gave me goosebumps. Every cast member has their moment to shine, even briefly, in the first episode. It's a first-rate ensemble working with first-rate material that wants to be the spark that ignites the flame of change. There are a lot of shows this season that are embracing diversity (How to Get Away with Murder, Empire, black-ish, Cristela), but American Crime is the one that takes it most seriously, the one that wants to entertain while questioning the gray areas that come between black and white.
Through all of this, American Crime begs the question of the audience, "What is the real crime here?" Obviously there is the murder of Matt Skokie, the event which sets the plot in motion. But there are also the more general, mostly intangible crimes of racial profiling, of prejudice, of institutionalized hatred and judgment. In a time where the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and their subsequent protests across the country, are at the forefront of American consciousness, these questions seem vital. It's time that television, that entertainment, tackle this subject and make viewers uncomfortable in their complacency. Do Barb's comments about "those people" piss you off? Good, ask yourself why. Then talk about it. Do you think it's wrong that Alonzo is seen as a betrayer of his race because he wants to be better than the life that was laid out for him and his family? Ask yourself why. Then talk about it.
Just talk about it.