Interview: John Ridley, Creator Of 'American Crime' The drama, about the aftermath of a racially charged home invasion, challenges its many characters' viewpoints. Ridley says he wanted to explore "what happens when those truths start to fall away."
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'It Is About Truths': John Ridley On His New TV Show, 'American Crime'

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'It Is About Truths': John Ridley On His New TV Show, 'American Crime'

'It Is About Truths': John Ridley On His New TV Show, 'American Crime'

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John Ridley has spent his career telling stories involving race in America. He won an Oscar for his screenplay "12 Years A Slave." He's written movies about World War II's African-American airmen and directed a biopic on Jimi Hendrix. Now he's created a TV series, "American Crime," that begins with a racially charged home invasion in California's Central Valley.


FELICITY HUFFMAN: (As Barb) When was Matt killed, Sunday? It's Tuesday. That - all they have is a description of a car?

TIMOTHY HUTTON: (As Russ) And now they said that they think it might an Hispanic kid.

HUFFMAN: (as Barb) Some illegal?

HUTTON: (As Russ) Just Hispanic.

MONTAGNE: We learn about the crime gradually through the viewpoints of characters of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. John Ridley says he was inspired by a notorious crime in New York. In 1989, a young, white woman out jogging was raped and left for dead. Black and Latino teenagers, the Central Park Five, were sent to prison. Then a decade later, the real perpetrator confessed and those five men were freed - a shocking turnaround.

JOHN RIDLEY: The evidence, the confession, every single thing pointed to these young men being involved in a very vicious attack, and they were convicted. They were incarcerated. You know, the iconography of crime, of circumstances in New York across America and just being sold a belief completely that these young men did this and finding out years later - not only that the case was slightly wrong or one of them did it, but the other ones didn't - none of it was true.

MONTAGNE: Fiction.

RIDLEY: It was beyond a rush to judgment.

MONTAGNE: "American Crime" follows a similar rush to judgment. The victims are seemingly the perfect couple - an Iraq veteran and his beauty queen wife. He's killed; she's in a coma. Quickly, police arrest a meth addict, a black man as the killer and a Latino teenager, whose arrest shatters his upstanding immigrant father.

RIDLEY: It's about the fact that we, as people, often don't deal with each other until there is an outsized event, an event that unfortunately then we often choose one side or the other to root for, as opposed to rooting for the best possible outcome or an appropriate outcome and what it would be like for family members to be on one side or the other. Perhaps the worst phone you could get that one of your loved ones was either the victim of a crime or had been accused of being a perpetrator of the crime, and that cascade effect over time. What is it like for these families, week in and week out, month in and month out, to have to deal with each other, have to deal with the system and have to deal with their very private lives becoming public?

MONTAGNE: On that note, "American Crime" might, at first glance or when you first even hear the title, seem to be a police procedural.

RIDLEY: Right.

MONTAGNE: It's not. But, interestingly, in a number of scenes, we're sort of floating above what would traditionally be the focus of the film.

RIDLEY: Yeah, absolutely. That was a very active choice that it was not going to be - these stories were not going to be told from the point of view of the police officers, the prosecutors, from those in the judicial system. And we hope and believe that our police and our prosecutors are objective, but that's different than the way they're normally portrayed on television, where, you know, they're quiptastic (ph) individuals, they always have a funny line on the tip of their tongue or they have some strange personality quirk that allows them to see a crime scene differently than everyone else - very different than what we wanted to do with "American Crime."

MONTAGNE: One major character is a tough-love dad. He's Mexican-American. He came over, as he put it, with his wife, the right way.

RIDLEY: Right.

MONTAGNE: And so his two children - teenagers - one of whom ends up being accused in this murder, they're accusing him, basically, of wanting to be white.


GLEENDILYS INOA: (As Jenny) You're like a sellout.

BENITO MARTINEZ: (As Alonzo) Are you out of your mind talking to me like that?

INOA: (As Jenny) You see someone brown with a hoodie, they're a thug.

MARTINEZ: (As Alonzo) You need to stop running your mouth right now.

INOA: (As Jenny) You see someone with tattoos, they're a cholo.

MARTINEZ: (As Alonzo) You're not going to stand here and tell me about me.

INOA: (As Jenny) You wish you were white. You wish you were white so they would like you better. You hate yourself, and you hate us for looking like you.

RIDLEY: Here's this individual who does everything as the character says, and I put in quotes, "the right way," but then finds himself in a circumstance where his family are still suspect and, more importantly, how he looks at other individuals within his group - not wanting the show to be just finger-wagging black to white, white to Hispanic, but those of us within our own group and how we talk about each other, how we view each other or how we see each other.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, in fact, Felicity Huffman's character, Barb, the mother of the victim, brings in a whole other element, and that is she is most straightforwardly - you could get close to calling her racist. And yet she, at one point, makes this argument about this being a hate crime and if - why couldn't a white person be the victim of hate crime?

RIDLEY: Yeah, absolutely. She makes that one point a very - what I hope comes across as a truly reasoned argument about, why not?


HUFFMAN: (As Barb) If a white person said he hated blacks then shot a black, you know you would charge him with a hate crime, you know it. So one rule for them, one rule for us.

RIDLEY: That's one of the things that we really want to grapple with is that when you inject race into a circumstance, whoever it is, you are opening the door, and once you open that door, what else rushes in?

MONTAGNE: All these characters are pretty complex. But the one character who is, I would say, the most sympathetic in these early part of the series, is the one who is the most honest, and he will quietly cut through some of the ugliness going on around everybody. That's Timothy Hutton's character, the father of the victim, which is very interesting.

RIDLEY: Russ - Tim Hutton - the character that he plays. He's estranged from his wife. He was an addicted gambler. He failed in the most fundamental ways that a man can fail - just being there, being there for your kids. But he believes that he has re-engaged with his son, who was murdered, just in Sunday phone calls. That was the one thing that he looked forward to - I just know on Sundays, I'm going to talk to my kid. I rehabilitated that relationship. I can never make up for the past, but I always have this, and I know my child. And he starts to learn about his son, about the truth of their reconciliation, about the damaging cascade effect of the choices that he made as a father.

MONTAGNE: I'm thinking of the scene when Timothy Hutton just emerged from seeing the body of his son.


MONTAGNE: And he asks, is there a bathroom? And he is howling with grief.

RIDLEY: Yeah. We had the scene written. We knew where we were going to shoot it. And we just - I said to Tim that we're just going to roll the camera and we want you to start notionally at zero, and we want you to take it to the point where you as person - you're spent. And there's a really lovely moment where Tim crosses to the faucet and just runs the water over his hands and doesn't drink the water, doesn't splash it on his face, just sits with the water running over his hand - did not write that, did not plan that, did not know that was going to happen. We just captured it - a father's pain, his sense of loss.

MONTAGNE: John Ridley. His new series "American Crime" debuts tonight on ABC. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene.

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