How to Talk About Crime in America Without Parroting the Cops

We talked to Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Ridley about his show 'American Crime' and how it breaks from the pack of true crime procedurals.

by Bill Kilby
Jan 20 2016, 5:00am

John Ridley with the cast and crew of 'American Crime.' Photo courtesy ABC/Ryan Green

The cast and crew of 'American Crime.' Photos courtesy ABC/Ryan Green

John Ridley, an Academy Award winner for his adaptation of 12 Years a Slave, is no stranger to turning gritty, true stories into compelling drama. The second season of his ABC anthology series American Crime premiered earlier this month, and the show represents a departure from network TV's usual slate of rote crime procedurals. Rather than telling the story exclusively from the perspective of prosecutors and law enforcement, Ridley instead focuses on how jarring incidents of crime intersect with thorny social problems like race, class, and sexual orientation, irrevocably impacting victims and communities.

VICE recently spoke with Ridley about the process of adapting true crime stories into dramatic, socially conscious television, the recent cases that might have influenced his fictional narratives, and how TV drama can broaden our understanding of crime in real life.

VICE: The plot line for this season of American Crime bears strong similarities to several highly publicized incidents of sexual assault that allegedly occurred at American high schools and universities. Were you consciously inspired by any particular incidents, and if so, what compelled you to explore them further?
John Ridley:
We were—I don't know if inspired is the right word—but certainly guided as we started to study these incidents happening in any number of places. They happen with far too much regularity. They tend to be underreported generally, and under-adjudicated. Even over the holiday weekend of the New Year, there was a case in Tennessee of [alleged] sexual assault that was just frighteningly similar to the circumstances that we're talking about in the show. It was very important to us to try to have a level of emotional honesty to what we're doing.

Obviously this is not a non-fiction program—we're creating some characters, we're bringing some perspectives together. We want it to be a show that is larger than just an examination of sexual assault, but in dealing with that and knowing that that was going to be the inciting incident, we certainly wanted to try and be representative of incidents that are happening, so that the emotional honesty cannot be questioned.

[It's] sadly very similar to our first season, where we found ourselves in production and then airing amidst Ferguson and Baltimore. I think very sadly, as much research that we've done, as many voices and individuals we try and bring into our conversation, we find ourselves well behind. If we can get people to slow down and pay attention to things, that's great, but the reality is that these things are happening right now with far too much frequency.

What do you think the key is to adapting real-life crime into fictional drama, while keeping it from becoming sensational and un-relatable?
One of the things we do to keep it from becoming sensational and exploitative is to not luxuriate in the crime itself. Both in last and this season, we don't really return to the scene of the crime, we try not to get graphic in terms of visual presentation of the crime, but really focus on the people, the circumstance, what they're going through, and give the audience a level of emotional connectivity, where it's not just putting harsh photographs and imagery in front of people and being lurid for the sake of being lurid. Seeing how hard it is to live with accusations or doubt.

I believe this season in particular, more so than last season, is about families—about the fusion of the family unit, often in opposition to other families, and that's something that the audience can [relate to]. If you have a family, and everyone does in some regard, you know those moments and those feelings where regardless or irrespective of what anyone else will say, you will [stick up] for your family; you'll believe, you'll have faith, you'll defend.

For us, it's about the people first and the investigation second, if at all; we don't [focus] a lot on investigation, and we avoid being graphic for the sake of being graphic. [It's about] seeing the things that we often don't deal with or personify when we see these cases in real life being trotted out again and again on a cycle on cable news.

American Crime specifically focuses on how structures of race and class in US society influence each individual's reaction to a crime. Do you think network television dramas do a good enough job at capturing these social realities?
I certainly think there are shows on a week in and week out basis where they make an effort to look at the impact of crimes in different regards. I think the difference between American Crime and other programs is that because it's serialized, because it is not episodic television, we have the opportunity to look at people's circumstances over ten hours versus an hour. So I know there's outstanding television that balances the procedural aspects of the show, while at the same time giving perspectives on race or class or gender or orientation.

But when we have the opportunity to do it for ten weeks, and when the crime is secondary to the cascade effect, I believe that it does bring our characters and either their personal motivations or the impact of what's happening to them—it allows us to excavate it to a greater degree. And I certainly think looking at the show and how people respond to it, they respond to the fact that they can spend time and get to know and be observant of these characters as people more than just plot points.

John Ridley on set. Photos courtesy ABC/Ryan Green

Have you been following the current wave of true crime documentaries like Making a Murderer, the Jinx, and Serial?
The Jinx, yes; Serial, I'm aware of, and Making a Murderer I'm aware but haven't had a chance to see it. Those three in particular are obviously phenomenal, and I've got to tell you, you can sit around in a room with a bunch of writers and make up a lot of stuff, and hope and believe it's good, but these true-life stories are absolutely amazing.

They seem to be plotted very similarly to dramas like yours, in that they focus on a particular case over the course of a series, rather than for a single episode. Do you think dramas have influenced documentaries in this direction?
I don't know. I believe there's fluidity among types of storytelling, and back in Joseph Pulitzer's day, or in the early days of things like Esquire, they had serialized storytelling and excerpts from books. I think Truman Capote's In Cold Blood was originally published in excerpts in [the New Yorker ]. There's the sensation of storytelling that is very attractive to an audience. Back in the day you'd go and watch serials in the movie theaters. In television there's been some serialized storytelling in the past, which went away and is coming back into favor now.

But the nice thing about where I find myself and the folks that I find myself working with is that there is an appetite for storytelling that is not where you hit that 32-minute mark and all of a sudden you gotta start wrapping it up and sending people to jail. One of the things I was very happy about exploring in the first season was the idea that these trials don't happen the next day or at the end of the week—it takes months and months and months just to do the arraignment, the preliminary examination, before you [go] to a jury of your peers, if at all. The majority of cases never go to trial. So I think people were doing serialized storytelling way before I was; people were doing it with true crime stories. I think it's nice for people to see that reality and the creative narrative often times aren't so far afield as we sometimes think.

Are there any types of crime you think are uniquely American? What qualities make them so?
Crimes in and of themselves—murder, sexual exploitation, assault—I think they can happen pretty much anywhere. But every system is different: how they're investigated, the expectations, the cultural density that they take on. I know there're things that feel unique to me, but I've never lived a great long time in other countries. Certainly, circumstances like the rate of gun violence, the rate of murder, make it different, but they do happen around the world.

I think it's more once these incidents happen, how we engage, how we adjudicate, the expectations of our legal system, are certainly different here than in China. Even the death penalty and the way it's applied in America and the way it's applied in Japan—it can be radically different. That, I would say, is where the crimes get unique: it's the aftermath that takes on the particulars of the society in which it occurred.

American Crime airs on Wednesdays at 10:00 PM on ABC. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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