And there’s Kimara, a single woman struggling to afford her unsuccessful in vitro sessions and determined to persuade a 17-year-old prostitute named Shae (Ana Mulvoy-Ten) to testify against her pimp. With characteristic patience, American Crime demonstrates the stifling injustice of Shae’s situation, and with characteristic compassion, gives her room to breathe, at least in the viewer’s eye: Like Kimara at the cable company, when Shae’s pimp takes her to a department store’s makeup counter, the camera stays squarely on her face as the makeup artist asks what the occasion is. The occasion, of course, is a trick, and when we follow Shae to a motel room — where her john demands she remove her makeup because “You look like you’re 30” — we never see his face.
The show’s directing style yields some amazing, naturalistic performances, similar to Friday Night Lights, which also let the actors shine by having three cameras roll simultaneously while the performers moved through a scene, so they weren’t constantly aware of hitting their marks and could concentrate on the interaction between the characters. Often, the direction on American Crime speaks louder than the writing — the first two episodes were written by creator John Ridley, who penned the Oscar-winning screenplay for 12 Years a Slave — which is unfussy, the dialogue representative of how ordinary people talk. But the directing emphasizes humanity, challenging us to look at the often pained expressions on the characters’ faces without breaking our gaze.
Often the most violent events on American Crime — which airs on primetime network TV — are blurry, in the background, while the camera focuses on the reaction of a bystander who’s usually half-obscured. In another brutal scene, we see an extreme close-up of a girl’s face as she’s being raped in a field — another farmhand says the bosses call the fields “the Green Motel” — before we cut to a wide shot of the field, where the crime is hidden among the tall crops and everything appears calm and peaceful.
American Crime’s third season is a brilliant, heartrending illustration of how hardship hardens people; how pressure on one person trickles down to another, and another, until it reaches the most vulnerable among us. Despite the show’s painful subject matter, it insists that we not only look at these people but really see them. The show is driven by an impassioned plea: Don’t get distracted by official explanations that paper over the reality of people’s lives. Don’t deny what you can see with your own eyes.
American Crime Season 3 premieres Sunday, March 12 at 10 p.m. on ABC.