March 3, 2016
American Crime is one of the most important shows on television at the moment. It’s not one of the best, nor is it the most entertaining (though it really is terrific). But the issues that this anthology series examines – race, sexuality, class, tribalism -and the manner in which it inverts all these topics, starts a proper conversation, rather than prattling the same important message to the converted masses.
A headmistress passionately advocates for the rights of her privileged students and the discrimination they face. No one believes the male victim of a sexual assault. A black mother disapproves of the ‘ghetto’ company her jock son keeps. While the primarily black board of a working class school are accused of racism by a Latina representative.
Showrunner John Ridley, who penned 12 Years A Slave, weaves these stories together to create a catch-all narrative, that shows not only how the American school system educates its children, but also influences them through power structures and lofty ideals that warp their minds.
Hormonal, detached and blinded by conflicting loyalties- to themselves, to others and to what they know is right, the students of Leyland High (and its less salubrious rival, Marshall), become the perfect metaphor for the shows titular nation.
Felicity Huffman presides over Leyland, a headmistress who runs her school like a CEO. She’s a kindly face, with a caustic mind and a discorded soul. In the middle of a multimillion-dollar fundraising drive, a picture of Taylor- a working class student who attends the school on scholarship, appears online, pants down drunk with the words ‘White Trash’ written across his face.
Leyland soon finds itself in a tailspin when Lili Taylor, his single mother, is spurned at every turn by the administration, police and medical profession who can’t seem to get their head around the fact that men can, in fact, be raped. Even if he was attacked, is the shame she’d cause him, by pursuing this, worth the damage it would cause to the community? (“Do you really want this to go public?”)
She turns to the press to get her story out, and in the process indicts the captain of the school’s much heralded basketball team, a young, wealthy African-American student, from a powerful family.
It’s a gripping, trickles story, where the ‘he said, he said’ friction removes the gender bias engrained by society. Presumptions about masculinity, about culpability and about consent are examined without hysteria, but also with great consideration for those struggling with an assault, an accusation and the fall out of both actions.
The “Do as I Say, Not as I Do” mentality of the elders results in a swathe of children unable to grip the concept of guilt, of right and wrong or even fairness, as few of Leyland’s students seem at all put out by what’s happening, while at Marshall, gang justice drawn along racial lines, erupts in the hallways, in the black principals office and on the grounds.
Regina King won an Emmy for her work on the first series of this anthology, (which needn’t be watched before starting Season 2) and is an acerbic presence here as the captain’s stringent mother, a successful executive aware that society accepts less of people of colour when it comes to teenage foibles. Timothy Hutton is nebulous as the team’s coach, devoted to his ‘boys’ to the extent that it has affected his wife (Hope Davis) and corrupted his daughter. While the aforementioned Taylor and Hoffman give detailed instinctive, performances.
But the show really belongs to its young cast –particularly Taylor Blaine as the apparent rape victim, Angelique Rivera- as his girlfriend and Joey Pollari as another working class student who is also a star of the basketball team. Their language will make you wince, the word ‘bitch’ in particular has never landed so brutally. But the confusion and poor guidance is written across these young actors faces, proving that, in spite of what Philip Larkin might write, its not just your mum and dad who fuck you up.
When one character says; “Everybody has their blind spots, I’m just trying to help you find yours”, she spells out clearly what Ridley wants us, as the audience, to take from this show. American Crime may overdo it with the inversions, but it brilliantly exposes the flaws in our shared psyche, to see just what needs to be done to spur those in authority to action.