ABC’s unapologetic hour-long series, American Crime, tackles race, class, gender, politics, criminal justice, family and faith. Set in Modesto, CA, the complex drama chronicles the investigation and emotional trauma following the shooting death of a young white married couple, which connects individuals spanning various ethnic origins.
American Crime stems from a lunch meeting between show executive producers John Ridley and Michael J. McDonald in 2013. They discussed hot topics like Trayvon Martin, Jodi Arias and their affinity for the documentary The Central Park Five.
Resigning as ABC’s Senior Vice President of Drama Development to head his production company, Stearns Castle, McDonald had been a fan of Ridley’s commentaries on race. He read Ridley’s Oscar-winning manuscript for 12 Years a Slave, recognizing without reservation that the writer’s insights could capture a realistic portrayal of American society.
“[John] wanted to do something that was timely and important but would push the envelope for network television,” says McDonald via phone. “We were both very interested in not the crimes themselves but what the families were going through.”
Ridley, who was a writer for Martin, Third Watch and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, was seeking to get back into creating television. Prior to screening American Crime’s first two episodes at SCAD Atlanta’s #aTVfest, Ridley spoke about how the show challenged him to interrogate and explore provocative subject matter.
“We really are trying to look at a lot of perspectives and have an emotional honesty in those examinations,” says Ridley with both arms folded across the table. “It’s reflective. Diversity isn’t a notion. We’re a broad culture. That’s what we are.”
In mid-production, both Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner being choked by police officers in New York occurred. Ridley is aware that audiences and critics may draw parallels from the storylines. He hopes that people will critique America’s state of affairs.
“We’re not trying to exploit things that are happening,” says an eloquently speaking Ridley, “but we are trying to ask questions, examine certain psychologies that are not different from what is happening in a real space and do it in an intellectual, honest way.”
American Crime was taped in Austin, TX over four-and-a-half-months. The dedicated showrunner worked diligently on-set to foster a highly cooperative tone amongst everyone. He recruited an eclectic group of writers, went after performers who could deliver emotion and even hired numerous female directors.
“I wanted to create an environment where people knew they were gonna be treated with respect,” says Ridley. “When people are working together to accomplish something or a common goal for a common cause, they do better.”
The cast immediately took notice of Ridley’s leadership and ambition. Caitlin Gerard, who plays the drug-addicted Aubrey Taylor, was impressed with the NYU alumnus’ welcoming attitude.
The actress addresses how the writer responsible for films like Undercover Brother, Red Tails, Three Kings and All Is By My Side consistently gave his undivided attention to each individual regardless of role.
“[John] respected the integrity of trying to create an even playing field,” says Gerard. “If he was talking to you, he was talking to you. That kind of environment made everyone want to be their best.”
McDonald, an executive at UPN prior to his ABC tenure, didn’t have a lot of direct contact with Ridley during the development of Ridley’s hip hop-themed series, Platinum. Partnering with Ridley on American Crime allowed McDonald to have a better understanding of television’s creative process.
“[John] constantly challenges the people around him to participate with him,” says McDonald. “He’s the hardest working writer I’ve ever worked with. He doesn’t just write a script and say ‘Here it is.’ He converses with me and the other writers. He’s very collaborative.”
Seated at a roundtable, co-stars Elvis Nolasco, Benito Martinez and W. Earl Brown each elaborated on Ridley’s humility. Martinez, who plays hard working, overprotective single father, Alonzo Gutierrez, met Ridley at rehearsal, also the day after Ridley won his Academy Award.
As Martinez congratulated Ridley, the soft-spoken writer expressed to the New Mexican actor that he’s happy to be employed. “He doesn’t make it about a moment,” says Martinez. “[John] invites you to give your best effort on every single moment and will not back away from that. He has your back.”
Nolasco, who plays Aubrey’s codependent drug-addicted love interest, Carter Nix, previously worked with Ridley on Da Brick, a pilot for HBO. The actor was familiar with Ridley’s vision and nurturing approach to filmmaking.
“The minute you meet [John], he gives you this sense of comfort,” says Nolasco, “and you can immediately know there’s trust there on both sides. He lays everything out for you slowly. You don’t know everything from the beginning.”
American Crime is taking How to Get Away With Murder’s time slot. The cast and crew are confident that the series will spark dialogue around dinner tables and social media. Ridley just hopes viewers will appreciate the show’s top quality production aesthetics and his team’s work ethic.
“Everybody has to up their game in terms of storytelling and visuals,” says Ridley. “When we were putting this together, we had to use all of the tools of cinema. If this show works, it works because of everyone’s capacities.”
The series premiere of American Crime debuts on Thurs., Mar. 5 on ABC at 10:00 p.m. ET.
The post was created by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.