The crime in American Crime’s third season transcends the average courtroom-drama plotline, delving into the murky and dangerous world of 21st century slavery, including immigrants held prisoner and forced to work for less than minimum wage and a teen trapped in life on the streets by bureaucracy.
In the first example, Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez) discovers the deplorable conditions under which the Hesby tomato farm’s migrant workers are forced to live and toil when he goes to work there. When a bunk full of workers burns down, Jeanette Hesby (Felicity Huffman) wants to help and is surprised her husband (Tim DeKay) covers it up.
In season 3’s other tale, Shae Reese (Ana Mulvoy-Ten) has been working for a pimp since she ran away from home. A social worker (Regina King) tries to get her off the streets, but the legal system works against her.
Rotten Tomatoes spoke to American Crime creator John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) and cast member Lili Taylor (The Conjuring), who appears in the season starting in episode four, and also caught a panel discussion with more of the cast at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles.
Here are 10 ways American Crime exposes the modern slavery happening in America.
If a farm can get inexpensive labor by hiring undocumented workers, what makes them go the extra mile to treat them badly? Couldn’t a farm owner mitigate the low pay by offering pleasant conditions? Ridley says they’re motivated to break the workers’ spirit.
“The essence of human nature is to move towards freedom, liberty, and self-determination,” Ridley told Rotten Tomatoes. “When people come here, how do you keep them? You keep them through financial subjugation, through physical subjugation, through intimidation. That’s the only way to keep the human spirit down. They do it because they can do it. They do it because they have to do it. It is not our nature to be oppressed.”
Richard Cabral plays a manager on the tomato farm. His character was a migrant worker himself, so why would he help perpetuate slave conditions?
“He feels no remorse for what he’s inflicting because he, too, went through this as a child,” Cabral said during the Paley Center panel. “Everything that he’s asking from everybody, he’s done himself. This is all he knows so that’s his driving force that keeps on moving forward. The job needs to get done. Those are his survival instincts.”
When Jeanette realizes something is wrong on the farm, her husband makes sure she can’t change the system his family has in place.
“She finds herself in a circumstance where she doesn’t have a voice, where she doesn’t have stature, where she needs to find out what she’s about,” Ridley told Rotten Tomatoes.
Playing someone with little agency or power was new for Huffman, and she embraced the challenge.
“When she sees what’s happening with the immigrant workers, she goes, ‘Oh, I’d like to help them, and I’m sure you want to help them too.’” Huffman said on the panel. “It’s heartbreaking when she [realizes] oh, you don’t want to help them?”
Taylor and Timothy Hutton play parents Clair and Nicholas who hire Gabrielle Durand (Mickaëlle X. Bizet) as an au pair from Haiti.
“It’s not so usual that it’s a Caucasian woman who’s hiring in a domestic like that, and it starts to get into problematic stuff,” Taylor told Rotten Tomatoes. “I hire this nanny to try and solve some of the problems in our marriage hoping that maybe it can give us some time alone, hoping it can take away the burden that he feels from the child. It doesn’t answer our problems at all. In fact, I think it makes things worse.”
On the tomato farm, slave labor conditions are part of their business model. Hutton and Taylor’s Nicholas and Clair Coates did not set out to be slave drivers. They just project their personal frustrations onto their au pair.
“Part of what happens is Nicholas is very mean to Clair, and then I end up being very mean to the nanny,” Taylor said. “When we don’t deal with our own stuff, it becomes an ethical situation where it gets put onto other things and other people when we don’t deal with our unconscious.”
When someone comes to America and doesn’t speak English, they rely on people who speak their language to translate for them. As people on the farm, or the au pair in a suburban house find out, they can be misrepresented by English speakers. The season captures that experience by presenting some dialogue without subtitles.
“We have a character who, by and large, through the first two episodes, his language is Spanish,” Ridley said. “You have to give credit to the network. When we present them with scripts and we tell them that large portions of that script are going to be in Spanish or in French or in Haitian or French Creole, they don’t shy away from that. In fact, they support it.”
Some scenes do have subtitles for the English-speaking viewers. Ridley decided when the information being discussed was too integral to leave ambiguous.
“If the show can thrive on its emotionality, those are spaces where we will not have subtitles,” he said.
Bizet herself speaks French and English, but she understands how vulnerable she could be if she were not bilingual.
“She’s this woman who comes to a country and literally has no voice because she doesn’t speak English, and she doesn’t know anybody who speaks her language,” Bizet said on the panel. “She realizes that the American dream comes at a really high price that she wasn’t expecting at all.”
Clair enjoys France and speaking French. She got excited about bringing a Haitian into her home, but starts treating her like a new toy, not as a person.
“I think some of it’s that Claire is a francophile,” Taylor told Rotten Tomatoes. “She spent time in France, just loves things French. Clair thought that’d be a great way for me to work on my French, a way to teach [her son] French. That’s a setup for things going wrong.”
Taylor herself did take a crash course in French.
“I knew in July and we were going to start filming in September,” she said. “So I started on my own, just 30 minutes a day every day. Then I found a great French helper who translated and coached me on sound. I realized what I needed to do was to not learn the lines with the meaning at all, which I don’t do anyway. I try to just learn lines by rote and then start translating after I’d gotten it down perfectly.”
Shae turned to the streets to escape her abusive family. For her, prostitution was an improvement.
“Her family is definitely more dangerous to her than the environment she’s in,” Mulvoy-Ten told Rotten Tomatoes on the red carpet before the panel. “She actually thinks that where she’s at now, living in a bedroom with six other people run by her pimp, that is better than what her family situation was. You can imagine what that was like. She thinks she’s upgraded.”
Shae needs an abortion because she was impregnated on the job. The law in North Carolina requires a teen under 18 to get her parents’ consent. Now Shae is caught between her abusive mother and going back to her pimp.
“It just seemed completely unfair that her parents abused her and the whole reason she was on the streets doing the job she was doing was because of her parents, and then she can’t even get an abortion,” Mulvoy-Ten told Rotten Tomatoes on the red carpet. “She has no money, she has no means to make money. The only way she makes money is through prostitution, and she doesn’t even get most of it. Her pimp gets most of it. The whole thing is brutal.”
Jeanette fights for justice but it may be too little too late. She realizes that this is not the first incident of the Hesbys mistreating workers
“She’s been asleep for 30 or 40 years,” Huffman told Rotten Tomatoes on the red carpet. “She’s been married a good 30 years into that family, but she does wake up and wants to take action and wants to be a part of the solution and finds that she doesn’t count. I think there have been things that have happened in that family. I think there were incidents that they kept from her and she chose not to investigate.”
American Crime returns March 12 at 10/9 C on ABC