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On John Ridley’s American Crime and the #MeToo Movement

by Cyrus Cassells

Apr 17, 2018 | Culture, Media, Politics

ABC/Matt Petit

The more I’ve been following the #MeToo movement, with its dismaying, even shocking revelations about the ubiquity of harassment, sexual coercion in the workplace, and even rape, the more I’ve been longing to revisit the incredibly pertinent second season of ABC’s American Crime. The show focuses, with unremitting power, on the alleged sexual assault of a working-class Indianapolis teenage boy and the moral bonfire that the male rape charge ignites in the bullied student’s Midwestern community. The social and political “sea change” that has come our way since the New Yorker exposé of film mogul Harvey Weinstein (and the subsequent disgracing of powerful men in several arenas) has dramatically altered American cultural discourse on rape and sexual harassment. American Crime’s creator and key writer-director, John Ridley, garnered an Oscar for his adapted screenplay of 12 Years a Slave (that year’s Best Picture winner), and the same unflinching gaze he brought to that film’s account of a freed mid-19th-century African American kidnapped and sold into slavery Ridley brought to fierce, hard-to-resolve moral and social issues in his swift, sobering television series.

With its focus on cyberbullying, rape culture, consent, teen suicide, homophobia, closeted gays in school sports, sadomasochism, and racial infighting, when it first aired in the winter of 2016, American Crime felt like the show with the most “real world” kick and urgency. That still feels true, on a second viewing, in 2018. Revisiting American Crime, I’m struck by Ridley’s masterly writing and design, so that, in the course of 10 episodes, so many significant aspects of rape culture and the #MeToo phenomenon are referenced: the ire, disdain, disbelief, and predictable apathy leveled at assault or harassment victims; the reflexive blaming and smearing; the institutional stonewalling and betrayal; the legal and financial settlements that keep predatory behavior from being exposed; the failure to protect young men and women and the community at large. The show’s chock-full social agenda might have collapsed into an unruly sociology or civics lecture, but Ridley does an ingenious layering of the hot-potato themes and issues, and his ability to go straight to the heart of contemporary clashes is, in equal doses, artful, rough-going, and breathtaking. The first time watching the show, I felt consistently shaken and grateful that such a daring vision of current society (savvy and utterly frank about race and class—reminiscent of HBO’s masterpiece The Wire) could have ended up on prime-time television.

American Crime begins concisely with the words of a 911 call posted on a black screen (“What is your emergency?” “I want to report a rape”) and segues into the phenomenon of all-too-prevalent cyberbullying: Photos of a drunk, disheveled high school kid, Taylor Blaine (Canadian actor Connor Jessup in a star-making performance), are posted online, with captions such as “White Trashed.” The boy is on scholarship at Leyland Academy, an elite private school (“Segregation Academy,” an angry Latino parent at a school meeting calls it), and because of the incriminating photos, Taylor is suspended, due to “behavior out of code.” His flummoxed waitress mother (played by Lili Taylor with heartwrenching fidelity and gallant fire, in a career-best performance) discovers, after much probing of her tight-lipped, recalcitrant son, that he was probably drugged and assaulted at a basketball team party, known as “The Captain’s Party”—a kind of ritual initiation, a school “tradition” that has devolved into a consistently drug-and-sex-fueled event. When Taylor’s wounded and impassioned mother, Anne, confronts the school’s headmistress (played by Felicity Huffman with aplomb and savoir-faire), Anne blurts: “You don’t understand. My son was raped!” And the school administrator, a consummate politician, warns, “I’d be very careful about using that word.” So with one piercing caveat, the furious battle lines are drawn.

I felt consistently shaken and grateful that such a daring vision of current society could have ended up on prime-time television.

The heft of the show—and its genius—is how the sexual assault charge (and the complicity of the school’s athletes, abetted by benighted adults), spurs the swift moral unraveling of the community, leading to further despair, victimization, and full-blown tragedy. With its focus on embattled individual truth and community culpability, American Crime feels like a modern equivalent of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. In a spirit of moral and social inquiry, Ridley employs interviews with real-life victims of rape, bullying, and school violence, and showcases a dynamic modern dance performance (at a school benefit, with most of the show’s main characters in attendance) that expresses, through apt music and movement, the turmoil at the core of this “heartland” community.

It’s difficult to discuss the intricacies and relevance of the show without plunging into spoiler territory, so please be forewarned. After a rape-kit examination, the local police discover blood and traces of another boy’s semen on Taylor’s body, so the basketball team players are threatened with criminal investigation and possible arrest. A cell phone search reveals that Taylor and Eric Tanner, his alleged assailant, had arranged for a secret “hook-up,” one with overtones of sadomasochism, so the police and most of the community dismiss the teens’ party encounter as consensual, but Taylor and his mother vehemently insist that it was rape. Both boys have girlfriends, and in depicting the ensuing scandal, the show delves into how difficult it is for teenagers (and likewise, athletes in the conservative sports world) to come out or explore their burgeoning sexuality without incurring stigma, homophobic bullying, or controversy.

The show is bolstered by the most empathetic, unblinking depiction of teen sexuality I’ve ever seen on any screen, big or small. Through phone apps, Eric, the handsome but moody and troubled star athlete, arranges clandestine encounters with older men (who don’t seem to care a whit if he’s underage), and in one of American Crime’s most harrowing and unforgettable scenes, he is suddenly attacked by a married man (“I just need to be myself sometimes”) and narrowly escapes sexual assault.

Ridley and his able season directors (including Kimberly Peirce, the director of the Oscar-winning Boys Don’t Cry, which depicted the murder of a transgender teenager, and gay filmmaker Gregg Araki) never shoot the tough-minded, often galvanizing scenes in the way we’re used to observing action in other made-to-order shows; with this subjective, unusual cinematic approach—one of the show’s hallmarks—the camera often zooms in on a physical gesture or emphasizes one character while blurring other figures in the same frame. Growing accustomed, after a few episodes, to this austere, intimate visual style (scenes are often shot, à la Ingmar Bergman, in intense close-ups or at a distance—when we might expect the camera to be right on top of the action), we begin to grasp what Ridley is aiming for: complexity, mystery, pain, a lack of resolution. Ridley, who asserted in an interview once that he wanted “to baffle people,” has an uncanny gift for conveying conflicting sides of his beleaguered characters, for making us feel that we’re inside them, even the prickly, unlikeable ones, and being close to them is heartbreaking at times.

We’ve come to expect reliable performances from the likes of Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton (who plays the Leyland basketball coach) and Emmy-winner Felicity Huffman, but one of American Crime’s supreme assets is its indelible young stars, Connor Jessup as Taylor and Joey Pollari as Eric, the teen opponents at the roiling heart of the season’s alleged peer-to-peer assault. As in everyday life, in the closing episode, Ridley refuses to resolve, in a tidy, comfortable fashion, the knotted he-said-he-said moral tangle at his drama’s core. In a twist worthy of Shakespeare, Eric becomes the only person capable of lessening Taylor’s nightmarish downfall and legal dilemma. Eric: “I did what he wanted; I turned the bitch out.…Why does he get to own that night? How does he get to own me?” Taylor: “Why should I let my rapist become my savior?”

When ABC canceled the series, after three hard-hitting seasons that indeed altered the face of prime-time television, there was a rumor that the fearless Ridley was planning a fourth season about the plight of women in the workplace. Given searing current events and the country’s mood of fierce accountability and reckoning, we could use Ridley’s remarkable ensemble cast and his hypothetical fourth season focus now more than ever.

Cyrus Cassells, a poet and professor of English at Texas State University, lives in Austin.

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