CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Not three minutes into ABC’s new season of “American Crime,” which premieres Sunday, a group of Mexican men are shown clambering through a hole in a wall separating the United States from Mexico.
This tips off viewers that the third installment of creator John Ridley’s dramatic anthology series is going places this spring that could strike some raw nerves, given the current political climate.
But it’s not going to California, Arizona, New Mexico or Texas.
“Carolina del Norte,” says Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez).
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And we’re off to Guilford County, home to Greensboro, N.C., where a collection of sober, even-handed stories unfold involving a struggling tomato farm, its conflicted owners and the undocumented workers bound by indentured servitude to keep it running; a furniture supply business trying to stave off competition from China; and a social worker obsessed with rescuing victims of the sex trade.
These are story lines with relevance and immediacy. According to Polaris, an organization that helps run the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 181 cases of human trafficking were reported in North Carolina in 2016 (up from 112 in 2015), putting it 10th nationally.
But Ridley and executive producer Michael J. McDonald were intrigued by the idea of setting Season 3 of “American Crime” in North Carolina for other reasons, as well.
“John and I are very interested in the New South — the South that is educated, the South that has a thriving economy but yet is steeped in a history of racial tension,” McDonald said. (Ridley won an Academy Award for his script for “12 Years a Slave.”)
“We really wanted to show the collision between an older, whiter population and the new arrival of the Hispanic population. To set it in California would have been something that we’ve seen, but as the Hispanic populations are exploding in Georgia and North Carolina and other traditional Southern states, it’s a new culture clash that we wanted to expose, that we haven’t really talked about.
“What has been going on there, politically … it’s a real microcosm of America,” McDonald said. “There’s an internal struggle right now between the left and the right, and you’re seeing it obviously in your politics with your recent gubernatorial election, and HB2. And while we didn’t reflect upon that bill, we were fascinated by the idea that a fairly conservative bill was fought so hard in a traditionally Southern state.”
McDonald said they wanted to actually film in North Carolina. However, due to ABC parent company Disney’s objection to House Bill 2, which prevents transgender people from using public bathrooms corresponding to the gender with which they identify, “it wasn’t even an option for us … They were not allowing any filming in North Carolina,” he said. So shooting took place primarily in Southern California, with second-unit work done in South Carolina.
To give California the proper makeover for “American Crime,” “we carried around a truck of kudzu,” McDonald said. “We would just cover telephone poles and benches and parks, and it quickly looked like North Carolina with that. I mean, I know it’s a terrible blight, but it looks beautiful when you shoot it. … We also shot up in some agricultural areas north of L.A., and we had to do some digital manipulation to remove mountains.”
There are other touches, as well: extras in Guilford County Sheriff’s Office uniforms; references to North Carolina towns like Patterson, Gibsonville and Bentonville; and Regina King’s social worker, Kimara Walters, meets with an old boyfriend who says his son “keeps talking about wanting to go to Duke, but he doesn’t have the grades. So he’s looking into UNC.”
But that’s all window dressing. It’s the characters and the performances that have earned critical praise, as the series tackled race relations, the class system, the criminal justice system and sexual assault.
Season 1 focused on a deadly attack on a suburban white couple; season 2 on the sexual assault of a high school boy by a member of the basketball team. All three seasons have featured many of the same actors — King, Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Elvis Nolasco, Lili Taylor, Richard Cabral — but they play different characters each season.
King has scored two Emmy wins, and four others have been nominated: Huffman, Hutton, Taylor and Cabral.
Season 3 could belong to Benito Martinez, whose character, Luis, is one of the men shown illegally scrambling through that border fence in the premiere. Luis has a specific objective — to find his missing son — but in a broader sense, Luis’ presence serves to cast light on a complex American problem and complex types of crime.
“In my character’s journey, you the viewer will see how tough it is to be somebody who picks the tomatoes,” said Martinez, “and you’ll see that it’s a complicated web of a lot of different things that have immigrant workers coming here. … The farm owners need the cheap labor. And yet (the immigrant workers) are punished for coming here to fill the void that’s needed by the industry. It’s a circular thing that’s not very easily corrected.
“So you’ve got people on both sides of the issue who are not villains, and they’re not heroes. It becomes more complicated to make a straightforward judgment. And that’s always been the mission of ‘American Crime’ — we try to expose some truths and let the viewer make up their mind.”
“American Crime” airs at 10 p.m. Sunday on ABC.