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

Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton play two estranged parents whose son is murdered during a home invasion in ABC's <em>American Crime</em>.
Felicia Graham
Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton play two estranged parents whose son is murdered during a home invasion in ABC's American Crime.

Writer and producer John Ridley has spent a lot of his career telling stories about the history of race in America. He won an Oscar for his screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, he's written movies about the Tuskegee Airmen and Jimi Hendrix, and now he's created American Crime, a new TV series about the events surrounding a racially charged home invasion in modern-day California.

During that crime, one man, a white war veteran, is killed, and four suspects are brought into custody. We gradually learn more through the viewpoints of many characters of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Ridley tells NPR's Renee Montagne that the show is meant to challenge those characters' viewpoints.

"It is about truths," he says. "... As you grow as a person, your perspectives often ... calcify and they become very hardened and intractable. And we build up these truths about our lives, about ourselves, about our circumstances. And what happens when those truths start to fall away?"

Interview Highlights

On Alonzo Gutierrez (played by Benito Martinez), a Mexican immigrant dad whose kids accuse him of wanting to be white and whose son is one of the four suspects

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 this show to be just finger-wagging black-to-white, white-to-Hispanic, but [also about] those of us within our own group and how we talk about each other, how we view each other, how we see each other.

On Barb Hanlon (played by Felicity Huffman), who argues that her son's murder is a hate crime

She makes, at one point, a very — what I hope comes across as a truly reasoned argument about "Why not?" ... That's one of the things 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?

On Russ Skokie (played by Timothy Hutton), the murder victim's father who, after the murder, begins to learn his son had a dark side

He's estranged from his wife, he was an addicted gambler, he failed in the most fundamental ways that man can fail — just being there, being there for your kids. But he believes that he has re-engaged with his son, who is murdered, just in Sunday phone calls. That was the one thing that he looked forward to, is: "I just know on Sundays, I'm going to talk to my kid. I've 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 the reconciliation, about the damaging cascade effect of the choices that he made as a father.

On filming the scene where Russ breaks down in the bathroom after seeing his son's body

I said to Tim that we're just going to roll the camera and we want you start emotionally at zero and we want you to take it to the point where you as a person, you're spent. And then 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 hands. Did not write that. Did not plan that. Did not know that was going to happen. We just captured it.

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