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John Ridley on ‘American Crime’ Finale, Season Three Plans and ‘Presence’ (SPOILERS)

Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched the season two finale of “American Crime.”

After a season filled with questions — what really happened at the captains’ party? — “American Crime” ended with even more. Did Taylor (Connor Jessup) accept the plea deal? Did Eric (Joey Pollari) get into the car?

But that’s exactly the point, says executive producer John Ridley. “I would like people to read as much into it as they possibly can,” he tells Variety.

Whatever truly happened that fateful night, the fallout ultimately rippled throughout the community, impacting everyone from the head of school (Felicity Huffman) who thought she’d escaped unscathed, to the hacker (Richard Cabral) who set out for social justice but wound up a target himself, to the Sullivan family (Timothy Hutton and Hope Davis) who saw their daughter headed off to jail.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but is there a message you’re trying to send?

It’s not an easy question. I don’t like to convey a message, but as storytellers of course, there’s a story we’re trying to tell. The message is just to be observant and not be preachy and not offer up easy solutions. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is ask questions and not say here’s what I’m putting forward. Much like last year, we don’t want to answer things. My wife saw the final episode and she said she had to watch it three times. In the end I wanted things to work out for each of the boys. But it can’t. We didn’t tell you what happened. We didn’t tell you if it’s going to be good or bad. That’s what’s really important to me. (Our message is,) if nothing else, to try to offer up that change can happen. It’s not like the end of a procedural where the point is, here’s the bad guy and he gets convicted. The complexities in life are… complex. If you want change, it can be done. We’re trying to offer up context for things that happen in the real world.

So how should we interpret that ambiguous ending? We don’t know which path the boys choose. 

With Trayvon Martin, we know something happened. We know he is dead, but there will always be supposition, what that encounter really was. For these two young men, there will always be supposition in terms of their encounter. In terms of what we were doing, unfortunately many times in true sexual assault cases — for me it was less about solving it and laying blame and saying this is exactly what happened. The problem is people, often times young people in particular, get into situations where what happened can be gray. This is going to carry with them for the rest of their lives, and nobody should have to live with accusation or victimization. But unfortunately the system is not built to resolve these things. That’s what I wanted to get into in the end. It would have been disingenuous for the kind of storytelling we do if we found out one of those boys was a liar. Their truth is their truth. And we see that happen all the time. All we can do is take the evidence that’s on the surface. What we weren’t going to do is try to indict one or the other. To say, “This person did it,” it would have been a little manufactured to have a real ending where one did it and the other is a liar. When we were coming to the end, (executive producer) Michael (McDonald) said, “John, you’re a novelist. You’ve got to write this like it’s a novel.” To me, that’s the ending that has a bit more literature than a more straightforward television ending.

There are no heroes or villains — no one gets away unharmed, even the hacker, Sebastian, who gets into it trying to help. 

There’s a character who says to him, that’s what happens. No one’s in control. That’s an important message to make. A lot of people want to get involved, they want to be white hats for justice. But the difference between they feel it’s the right thing to do and oversight and regulation. That was very important for the LaCroix family. Even though their family was exonerated of the things they were accused of. There were other things about their fundamental nature that caught up to them. Dan Sullivan (Timothy Hutton), who espoused family values and winning, had problems at home. He didn’t know what his own daughter was doing. None of us are perfect people. I put myself at the head of the list. There’s work to be done, with all of us.

The series also stands out for your filmmaking style — you challenge the viewers to pay attention, with every visual choice you make. Last episode, you included a scene in Spanish without subtitles. 

I will say that one was a little bit of a fight. It was very important for me in that space. The point was that this young girl felt comfortable speaking Spanish to the administrator — that’s what her role was. She did outreach to Hispanic students. And she explained the scene a few minutes later. If we put subtitles in, it would have been dismissive of what that moment was meant to be about. There are things that are challenging, but this audience has proved that they can hang for 45 seconds while someone is speaking Spanish. Or moments like the dance piece, which are 4 1/2 minutes. I think that there are lot of spaces in “American Crime” where I hope the writing is strong. We have amazing directors that come in. Why would we not take chances? You’ve got to encourage them to shoot it. It’s something that really resonated. The audience that was going to come to this show at all can hang in. Those things resonate.

You knew you could get strong performances out of Felicity Huffman, Tim Hutton and Regina King. But the season really depended on your younger cast — particularly Connor Jessup and Joey Pollari.

That’s the scary thing going into a show like this. The story is going to hinge on a couple of kids who are teens, early 20s. Trevor (Jackson) just turned 18. Not only could they deliver, but they delivered across from Lili Taylor, from Regina King. There was never a moment where they were star-struck or intimidated or felt like they were swimming against a tide. It was material that was very mature and required subtlety, nuance and a real understanding. They were whip-smart. And they were all about the work. In their chairs and on time. They spent their weekends studying, they would go off and rehearse with the other actors. They took the subject matter seriously, and delivered performances that were equal to the best of the best. And we have the best of the best on the show.

Have you heard any news from ABC about a third season?

Not really no and not really yes. They’ve picked up some shows. They let me know before they did that that some shows were going to get picked up. I had no expectations that this show would get on the air, let alone go two seasons. I don’t know the numbers, I try to avoid them, but I know they’re obviously in a place where they’re not good enough to merit an early pickup. Nor bad enough where it merits early termination. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen. I’ve got the pilot I’m doing (detective drama “Presence”). I’ve got other projects I’m working on. It’s a show I’m sincerely proud of. If it goes away, people can only lament what ABC allowed to air for two seasons. I can’t be too upset about that.

Do you have ideas for a potential third season?

Oh man, do I have ideas! Unfortunately, very difficult things keep happening in our lives on a daily basis. And there are things that are out there that are bubbling just beneath the surface. For us, crime on this show is not just about the act itself but about the cascade effect. And we all spend a lot of time looking at the things that are happening. Not just OK, here’s the crime of the week, but the stories, where there’s spillage from one person’s life to the next. And there’s so many of them out there. Coming up with an idea will not be hard. Making it into however many episodes, feeling rich enough to be worth of people’s time — that’s where it becomes difficult. I think all the people involved are up to the task.

Would you take it to another network?

Honestly, we’re not even there yet. I can’t even think about that. Part of the reason it works so well is because it was on ABC. You hear all the time broadcast can’t do cable, and then you do it. We are challenged by language and by what we can’t show. The fact that we have numbers at all is that the footprint of the network allows us to get a wider viewing. Nobody’s had that discussion with me. Being at ABC is very special. I was born and raised in Wisconsin, so it’s hard to think about living in Florida.

You just wrapped production on “Presence.” How did it go?

It’s phenomenal. I had a great time. “American Crime” is great, but it’s very emotional. “Presence” is fantastic. To have a cast that was largely Hispanic, black, to have a mixed crew — to me, that’s very exciting. If “American Crime” doesn’t come back, the construction, the people involved, the vibrancy of the storytelling, the level of the cinema, those things will continue for me. So I could not be more excited.

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