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Why Felicity Huffman’s Performance in ‘When They See Us’ Is So Great and So Confusing (Column)

The recent, and long-deferred, backlash to prosecutor Linda Fairstein’s role in wrongfully convicting the so-called “Central Park Five” has been fascinating to watch unfold — not least because Fairstein’s most significant failing has been understood as such for quite so long, to no apparent effect. The convictions Fairstein obtained were overturned in 2002; since then, Fairstein has continued her high-profile second career as a crime novelist with limited incident. That she is now quitting the boards of organizations for which she’s suddenly an unsavory distraction and defending herself in heated tones in the New York Post is proof of the success — commercial and creative — of “When They See Us,” the new Netflix limited series whose point-of-view of Fairstein it expresses with crystalline precision. Under any other set of circumstances, the actress who brings life to Fairstein, and who so cannily depicts the process of self-assured moralizing turning into racist action, would be getting the reviews of her career and likely cruising to an Emmy win. But unfortunately, that actress, too, has become a bit of a distraction.

Felicity Huffman presents an odd sort of question for viewers, something ancillary to the much-discussed, never-resolved question of what one does with art made by destructive people. Because director Ava DuVernay, and not Huffman, is the leading creative force behind “When They See Us,” and because Huffman’s alleged crimes — involvement in the systematic rigging of college entrance exams on her daughter’s behalf — are embarrassing and wrong but not on par with those of the artists we think of as monsters, that question doesn’t precisely apply. Watching “When They See Us” raises its own specific conundrum: How could a performer whose work — here and elsewhere — so penetratingly understands the origins of injustice be so blind to her role in it when she’s off the backlot?

On “When They See Us,” for instance, Huffman dominates the early going, looming over every scene after she’s first introduced like the specter of state-sanctioned injustice that Fairstein, in the story’s telling, is. Her passion for prosecuting five young men picked up on dubious charges rooted in their being in the wrong place at the wrong time expresses it in geysers of invective, as though she seeks to control their futures as compensation for not being able to control her own hatred. The manner in which Huffman utters the word “animals” to colleagues who approach the case with anything short of complete zeal. She uses a special sort of care, as if she’s seeking credit stopping herself from saying something worse, or as if she’s harnessing her rage, because she knows it will always overpower reason. Fairstein allows herself to become less human than sheer force, embracing the untrammeled, careening nature of her crusade. Her vision — not of finding and putting away the perpetrator in a specific case but of beginning a campaign that torches crime, beginning with a symbolic gesture whose real consequences matter little to her — lights her eyes with a frightening, feral glow.

This is not Huffman’s first time plumbing the wrong side of lines of moral ambiguity onscreen; on the second season of ABC’s “American Crime,” for instance, she played a private school administrator for whom the institution was an extension of her will to power, and, as such, needed to be defended by any means necessary. In both projects, she capitalizes on her low-key likability, the memories we retain from her turn as the realest of the “Desperate Housewives,” to mount a shock-and-awe campaign once the facade of familiar pal Felicity Huffman cracks into rage, but on “American Crime,” she was cool and contemptuous. Her work in “When They See Us” is at a new level of lacerating cruelty, a character without control played by an actress carefully choosing each pause and each elevation. Huffman seems, at least, to know precisely what she’s doing as Fairstein.

Which makes her apparent inability to see herself a small tragedy. The flashy oddity of the entire “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal and its obvious symbolic resonance in an era of inequity can sometimes lead to its enormity being a bit overstated; as the dust has settled, Huffman’s misdeeds are not on par with, say, leading the charge to imprison five young innocents. But what Huffman finds in her performance as Fairstein and may be blind to in herself is a particular addiction to narrative. The boys needed to go to prison, whether or not they had done anything wrong, in order to make the good people of New York feel safe. The daughters of the Macy/Huffman family needed to go to elite colleges, whether or not those spots might have better served young people with less social capital, whose non-wealthy parents neither had access to test-rigging schemes nor the inclination to cheat. Huffman finds in Fairstein a person whose most marked qualities are her absences — of equanimity and of fairness. That she’s now defined in the public eye by an alleged crime of a completely disproportionate attempt to further rig an already unfair system is proof, perhaps, that even our most perceptive performers can’t escape the quintessentially human problem of un-self-awareness.

The fact that Huffman’s performance has been hard to talk about or to metabolize on its own terms has yielded some benefits for a limited series whose structure stacks the deck, a bit. Because there is one Fairstein and five boys, because Fairstein is animated by power and the boys are deflated by powerlessness, and because Huffman is a celebrated star while the actors playing the boys (Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Marquis Rodriguez, and, especially, Jharrel Jerome) should be but are not yet, Huffman makes more of an impression. This is so much the case that if she were actively promoting the series, she might easily become the story of the series. Which would be a disservice. Whatever happens with her legal case, she’s already suffered a punishment — the loss of repute around probably her best work ever — that has also had a funny kind of preemptively restorative benefit to those around her. Without her in the headlines about “When They See Us,” Huffman, through no action of her own, allows her costars, the protagonists of the piece, to shine.

Famous white actors receiving accolades for supporting roles in stories anchored by equally able actors of color who get no such shine is hardly a new phenomenon — look at the Oscar nominations for Adam Driver in “BlacKkKlansman,” Sylvester Stallone in “Creed,” or Christoph Waltz in “Django Unchained” this decade alone. That is not going to be Huffman’s journey — but one hopes, say, that the spot that might have been reserved for her at the Emmys might end up going to Niecy Nash for complicated, tough work in “When They See Us,” or that the conversational vacuum she leaves might, as more and more screen the series, get filled by talk about the tenacious, heartbreaking work turned in by Jerome in the final episode. Her absence ends up creating a refreshing and fair bit of reversal-of-fortune whereby we can talk about the heroes and not just the powerful villain.

But someday, whenever she returns to the spotlight and after the first magazine cover or soft-focus talk show, I’d like to hear Huffman finally dig in and answer the questions no one got to ask her this time around — to talk about Fairstein, and this performance. I’d like to know if Huffman’s performance had concrete impacts beyond awakening an audience to Fairstein’s presence on various boards and convincing them to hound her out. I wonder if, as she reflected on what will at least for some time be her last role, she ended up seeing, and resolving (or not) to change, a bit of herself.

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