It’s funny how time can change your perception on things. Back in 2014, I moderated a post-screening panel for the documentary film and festival favorite, “Food Chains.” Producers Sanjay Rawal (who also directed), Smriti Kasahari, and Eva Longoria were all on hand to discuss how their film documented criminal labor practices in the U.S. food industry. “Food Chains” focused on farmers who hire illegal immigrants and drive them into debt, claiming their hourly wages, production, and general efforts to make an honest living don’t cover the costs of feeding and housing these workers.
Even though the food is slop and the housing just a crate packed with 20 men, no one questions the system because they can’t. There’s nowhere for workers to go and no one they can call for help. They live in fear of being deported or of their bosses — who physically and mentally abuse them, making them more susceptible to manipulation. Suddenly, these men and women are working to pay off an impossibly inflated debt, or, as its commonly referred, recruited into modern-day slavery.
That the third season of “American Crime,” John Ridley’s Emmy-winning ABC anthology series, focuses on these farms is one reason “Food Chains” sprang to mind when watching the first four episodes. Benito Martinez — who played a devout believer in the American dream during Season 1 and guest-starred in Season 2 — plays Luis Salazar, a middle-aged man we see make his way across the border (illegally) in the season’s opening moments. Luis doesn’t say much, but we know he’s on a mission that involves getting to North Carolina and scouring the farms there for something (or someone).
When he arrives, he encounters a few other familiar faces to “American Crime” devotees. Breakout Richard Cabral, who was nominated for an Emmy in Season 1, is back as an even more untrustworthy character, Hector Tonz (and far removed from his new recurring role on Fox’s “Lethal Weapon”). Hector is in charge of recruiting new field workers after the farm owners (one of whom is played by “Transparent’s” Cherry Jones) are told their prices are too high compared to competitors. They need cheaper labor to keep selling to mainstream grocery stores, and Hector knows how to find cheap labor. He convinces drug addict Coy Henson (Connor Jessup, who starred as the troubled high schooler in Season 2) to join him on the farm, and the two form a twisted, conflicted relationship of master and slave.
As is typical of the ensemble drama, “American Crime” doesn’t stop at farms. There are more stories of abuse tied into Season 3, with sex trafficking and underage prostitution dominating additional scenes. We meet Kimara Walters (Regina King), who works with a non-profit to provide assistance to victims of sexual abuse, namely prostitutes running scared from their pimps. It’s here she meets 17-year-old Shae Reese (newcomer Ana Mulvoy-Ten), and we watch as the two illustrate the prolific number of similar cases and how hard it is to get each individual the help they need.
King, who’s won back-to-back Emmys for the series, is again tremendous, dialing back her output to befit a character barely hanging on to her purpose in life. King moves uncomfortably in the frame, as even the easiest of problems — like paying a cable bill — become excessively complicated, demanding more from her than she feels capable of giving. After all, she’s giving so much already, and King carries the weight of Kimara’s sacrifice not with frazzled exhaustion or overt self-righteousness, but perpetual kindness laced with deeply felt sorrow.
That the personal side of her character’s story feels extraneous four episodes in isn’t King’s fault, nor is it that this section of “American Crime” plays out like a civics lesson instead of human stories. Scenes incorporating state laws and statistically relevant studies feel forced, or at least more forced than what’s going on with these farms. Granted, there’s a danger lurking there, too, as back-to-back Emmy nominee Felicity Huffman’s character is in danger of becoming the “white savior” of the series. But Ridley has never risked reducing the blunt force drama of his series with such rote stereotypes before, so we expect a sharp turn for the pity-filled Southern housewife soon enough.
Whether the series moves into new territories is up for debate, as well. By the end of the fourth episode in this eight-hour saga, two key developments take place: Rather suddenly, two new characters are introduced (played by Timothy Hutton and Lili Taylor). Their stories are independent of what we’ve seen up to that point, though obviously relevant in theme. Is a new thread about to be pulled? Perhaps, especially given the rather conclusive nature of Luis’ mysterious journey. It feels like one story is beginning as another ends, which would be a slightly new trick for “American Crime,” and one more reason fans would have to stick around.
And this brings us back to perception, time, and “Food Chains.” My past distaste for “American Crime” has been well-documented, and its new season doesn’t do much to dispel the unyielding theme of faithlessness, not only in the American system but in American people. Good people do bad things in “American Crime,” sometimes because they feel like they have to and sometimes because that’s who they really are. I cannot ascribe to such notions, nor recommend watching them on a weekly basis. But something happened during that “Food Chains” panel in 2014 that made me reconsider my final word on “American Crime.”
Following the screening, when we opened up the Q&A to the audience, Ms. Longoria called me out on taking too many questions from men. Now, I only saw one woman raising her hand, and, having called on her in past sessions to disastrous results, I knew better than to let this kind old woman — let’s call her Beatrice — take over the conversation again. But I let Ms. Longoria make the decision, and we both endured a long, meandering explanation of Beatrice’s personal eating habits — without a question in sight. There was no harm, really, other than losing time for better questions from other fans, but there was a surprising benefit. After Ms. Longoria asked me to call on more women in the audience, more women raised their hands. Whether they were bolstered by the knowledge their questions had to be better than Beatrice’s or had merely been waiting for the right moment, there were many, many more hands in the air as soon as dear Beatrice finished her statement.
Now, I’m not saying I should’ve called on Beatrice, but over time, as my embarrassment diminished, it only became clearer that Ms. Longoria was right to question my methods. From her perspective, it appeared as though a male moderator was purposefully ignoring a female audience member — and I was. That she didn’t know Beatrice’s history proved inconsequential given the positive results of Ms. Longoria’s call to action.
So if you’re stirred to watch “American Crime,” and it doesn’t mean sacrificing equally relevant television dramas (like “The Americans”), perhaps there are benefits unforeseen from my point of view. We live in a country with a lot of problems — problems seen from both sides of the aisle — and perhaps this blunt method of discussing them will inform viewers who don’t respond to subtler, less aggressive, and more aspirational delivery methods. Is the show still intensely claustrophobic and morally problematic? Yes, but more hands in the air is always a good thing.
“American Crime” Season 3 premieres Sunday, March 12 at 10 p.m. on ABC.