The Injustice Of True Crime Television
Television’s fascination with criminal justice is as old as the industry itself, but in 2016 it seems to have reached new heights, surfacing all kinds of tensions, racial and otherwise.
Other than Game of Thrones, there was no show with more nominations at this year’s Emmys than The People vs. O.J. Simpson, the FX mini-series chronicling the infamous events leading up to and surrounding Simpson’s trial for the killing of Nicole Brown.
The series ended up winning nine total awards, and was also the most watched new show on cable this year. Meanwhile, Netflix’s Making a Murderer picked up four Emmys, including Best Documentary Series, and it’s hard to imagine anyone besting ESPN’s O.J. Made in America in that same category in 2017. That widely-lauded five-part documentary about Simpson might even become the first television program to ever win an Oscar.
In a review of HBO’s The Night Of, Lili Loofbourow recently wrote that “when it comes to murder and our justice system’s shortcomings, we’re a nation obsessed.” Jared Keller at Pacific Standard adds that “we are living in the golden age of true crime — which coincides with a period of widespread ambivalence about the process of justice in America.” Writers at the BBC and Vogue have echoed the “golden age” sentiment, citing the above shows alongside the likes of the Emmy-winning True Detective and Peabody-winning Serial podcast as proof of a high water mark for procedural programming which questions the effectiveness of the legal system.
The commercial and critical success of these crime shows — which often, step-by-step, uncover police misconduct and/or government cover-ups — comes at a time when it’s become commonplace to witness the unjust killing of Black people (most recently Terence Crutcher and Alfred Olango) at the hands of law enforcement. Perhaps we love these shows challenging the system today because, as Ta-Nehisi Coates describes it:
“In 2016 we confront a new phase of the problem of police legitimacy. The Rodney King video was a shocker in its time. Now it seems that every week brings a new video of a black body being beaten and shot by the police. A flurry of government reports on policing in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Chicago have all delivered the same message — that racism has deeply infected American policing.”
And we are, thanks to the work of so many women, more willing to see the leading role that men play in perpetuating this mess.
Take, for example, Making a Murder, which highlights how corruption in a local police department, led by a boys club of public officials, leads to poor men being wrongfully imprisoned. Or The People vs. O.J. Simpson, which surrounds prosecutor Marcia Clark (played by Sarah Paulson) with a number of powerful men jostling for position in court, while the realities of a murder case are increasingly obscured. Meanwhile, O.J. Made in America zooms out from what we think we know about that case to focus on a history of LAPD racism, and what director Ezra Edelman describes as “masculinity and the need for control.”
However, despite casting doubt on the possibility of justice within an inequitable system, this new wave of crime shows often have their own curious limitations. For instance, while Made in America depicts the consequences of so many men looking away from O.J.’s abuse of Nicole — largely due to his fame and their own privilege — it is less interested in the historical intersection of racism and crimes against women, featuring few interviews with Black women speaking about their experiences in that larger context.
Similarly, while FX’s dramatic take has stand-out moments spotlighting Clark’s battle with misogyny and institutional sexism, it falls under the same spell that O.J.’s defense concocted in court — the one that relegates the narrative of abused and murdered women to the background, and again fails to investigate those who are most often victims of this kind of violence.
Perhaps no show exemplifies this inconsistency better than The Night Of, the critically-acclaimed miniseries that begins with a Pakistani-American Muslim man, Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), being accused of murder, and ends on the image of a cat scurrying across the apartment of the heroic white lawyer John Stone (John Turturro) — defender of the vulnerable, antidote to the System.
HBO’s fictional series centers around the harm caused to those without power, around the problematic laws built by and around those who insist on asserting their power ; from a cocky detective messing with a crime scene to the white men who circle the wealth of lonely women, the show goes to great lengths to depict the subtleties of systemic oppression. And yet, despite the clever cat metaphor, The Night Of has been criticized itself for a lack of empathy for both Black men and women of color.
In other words, the show ultimately chooses to center men like Stone at the expense of those more often left in the cold by the justice system.
In an industry where over 80% of directors are men and more than 90% of those holding executive positions at networks are white, these choices aren’t all that surprising. But within otherwise challenging and inclusive programs, which have been showered with praise for their insight into an oppressive system, these are frustrating oversights. It’s as if the lesson that Hollywood wants to teach us — or at least award itself for teaching — is the one it still struggles with itself.
If the problem with the justice system is its built-in bias against those who are least privileged, what does it mean when TV’s “best” shows on the subject reflect a similar bias?
“I think a lot of times you do what you got to do, or what everybody wants you to do, you know?” That’s what Naz says to Andrea Cornish — a woman he just picked up in a cab that belongs to his father — during the transformative moment of the HBO miniseries’ first episode. He is sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with her on the banks of the Hudson River, in the midst of a series of increasingly risky choices. Naz is looking for reassurance, but Andrea responds with playful disagreement — “Not really.”
Her rejection becomes a kind of dare. “Don’t you do what everyone tells you to?,” she says later, teasing him when he hesitates to take part in a dangerous knife game. This happens after he’s already taken a handful of drugs and entered her home with the hope of hooking up — all things which he, admittedly, doesn’t do very often.
Yet, Naz is a man and to be a man in America requires a constant performance of manliness. Sociologist and SUNY professor Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland, has called this one of the “rules” of masculinity, “Always go forward, exude an aura of daring and aggression in everything that you do.”
Perhaps more explicitly than its predecessors in the “Dead Girl Show” genre — as Alice Bolin describes those Twin Peaks-like dramas which always begin with the lifeless body of a (white) woman, and end with men in existential crisis — The Night Of, and the two hit series about Simpson, are critical studies of masculinity. Meaning they have something to say about the popular conception of manhood, the privileges of white men, and how this intersects to create extreme inequity in our criminal justice system.
The Night Of sets up John Stone’s struggle — he’s a low-level lawyer with serious skin problems, and his only friend is the cat he rescued from the crime scene — in parallel to that of his client, the brown man accused of murdering Andrea on the same night they shared that dream-like moment by the Hudson. As he awaits his trial, Naz goes to Rikers prison, comes under the protection of a Black inmate named Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams), and eventually emerges with a copy of The Call of the Wild, Jack London’s (very manly) novel about a dog who becomes more aggressive and dangerous in response to the harsh conditions he’s thrown into.
Though Stone isn’t faced with the same choices as Naz, he shares a similar achilles heel: a need to prove his masculinity. Whether to his ex’s son, his colleagues in the system, or the many women he imagines mocking him daily, Stone is pushed to take part in risky behavior (like purchasing Viagra from a man in a public bathroom) by some of the same insecurities which drive Naz to take his dad’s cab to go to a party, and later, to get a series of ill-advised prison tattoos.
Naz’s journey differs from Stone’s in a crucial way though, because as a young South Asian Muslim man in America, his lens on manhood has its own complications. The opening sequence of the series, where Naz longingly watches the basketball team practice and then eagerly accepts that invitation to hangout with some players, sets him up on the sidelines of dominant masculinity — not just as the nerdy tutor, but as a brown-skinned Muslim nerd, drawn in contrast to the athletic Black men on court. In this initial flurry the show promises a nuanced discussion of American masculinities in a post 9–11 world, and what Dr. Ornette Coleman describes as “the commodification of black hypermasculinity as an apparatus of patriarchy.” But, alas, that narrative isn’t allowed to emerge from under the weight of The Night Of’s own biases.
Mayukh Sen, writing about the show’s depiction of race for Vulture, points out that as “Naz mimics the traits of the black men around him […] the viewer is made to question the fundamental nature of his morals.” Black men — from inmates like Freddy to suspects like Duane Reade — are almost universally dangerous on the show, meanwhile, as Sen notes, the show has little to say about “how Naz and his fellow prisoners are casualties of the same carceral state.”
On The People vs. O.J. Simpson — whose episodes are directed by John Singleton, Anthony Hemingway and Ryan Murphy — the commentary on race, masculinity, and power is more incisive. There’s a key moment when F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), one of Simpson’s white defense lawyers, leans toward the prosecution’s Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown), who is Black, and whispers into his ear “You, sir, have the balls of a field mouse.” He is daring Darden to let Simpson try on a pair of black gloves found at the scene of the murder.
It echoes a moment earlier in the show, when Johnnie Cochran (Courtney Vance) humiliates Darden after he attempts to argue that the “n-word” shouldn’t be used in court. And it comes just days after Darden fails to make a move with Clark, which she seems openly disappointed about. So this time he responds to Bailey’s macho slight by making a rash, bold decision: He asks Simpson to try the gloves on, knowing that his co-counsel doesn’t approve. That ends up being a crucial mistake.
Similarly, in O.J.: Made in America, Edelman deftly investigates how Simpson grew to believe he could “transcend race” as a public figure, and how this contributed to his rise and downfall, but also suggests, as Kenny Herzog notes, that “his desire to dominate and devour women may have stemmed from a need to prove his own hyper-hetero masculinity.”
The bizarre denouement of that series, where we watch a post-trial Simpson star in a music video surrounded by topless women, and then charge into a Vegas hotel room with a posse of gun-totting men — a desperate attempt to regain his football memorabilia that ends with him in prison — is emphatic about the emptiness of the ideals of white manhood in America.
The two Simpson series may be more intentional than The Night Of in connecting hyper-masculinity to racism — a welcome development in mainstream television — yet they still fall short of capturing what Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw describes as “the intersectional dimensions of racial injustice.”
Even as these shows criticize a system for teaching men to worship a harmful ideal of masculinity, all three construct stories which ultimately place men above women — especially women of color. As Hunter Harris writes about Made in America at Refinery29, “somehow women — especially the Black women who freed him and exist at Simpson’s seams — get only a secondary role.” And even as The People vs. O.J. Simpson makes Clark a more central figure, the creators also make the decision to give buckets of screen time to Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), instead of further insight into the lives of Nicole Brown, the Black women on the jury, or the many women in Simpson’s family.
Meanwhile, Daniel Fienberg at The Hollywood Reporter notes that empathy becomes John Stone’s “superpower” in The Night Of — what ultimately gives him the ability to sway the jury to a split vote — yet the show itself has little care for women like the abused and murdered Andrea, who becomes “a footnote in her own story,” or women of color like Chandra, Naz’s lawyer who is abruptly dismissed and ultimately “rendered invisible.”
Most telling is how The Night Of falls into racist and sexist caricature when depicting women like Ciara (Racquel Bailey), the sex worker Stone represents in court, seemingly in exchange for sex. It’s not that the show doesn’t understand the ways in which Ciara is vulnerable, after all, in a later episode detectives are briefly shown at the scene of a murder where the victim is a Black woman (who may or may not be Ciara). But while Freddy also represents a stereotype, he at least has a point of view; meanwhile, Ciara is just a loosely sketched, hyper-sexualized tool to move another straight white man’s story forward. In fact, we are made to care more about the cat on The Night Of than any of the Black women that walk across the screen.
There’s a scene in The People vs. O.J. Simpson where Alan Dershowitz (played by Evan Handler) watches the trial with his Harvard Law students and points out how Cochran brilliantly ties the moment to a history of racial oppression, saying “you need to provide a narrative, not just in the courtroom; in the world.” His words function as more than just good advice for lawyers.
Yet, how many of our “golden age” crime shows provide a convincing narrative for how and why everyday masculinity, intimate partner violence, and murder are linked in the real world? Why the victims of these crimes are, and have always been, most often those populations of women who are most vulnerable — Black, indigenous, trans, disabled, poor?
By leaving out this historical perspective, even an otherwise brilliant series like O.J. Made in America struggles to build a firm case against the real, parallel structures which keep institutional oppression a reality. Despite the director’s belief that “the story of the abuse is as important as the conversation about race,” we very rarely see both discussed in conjunction. The impact is not just that these series end up not talking about how this violence disproportionately impacts women of color, but that by overlooking a certain injustice they struggle to leave us with a truly transformative critique of the system overall.
At the Emmys, Transparent director Jill Soloway memorably shouted “topple the patriarchy,” and asserted that “when you take women, people of color, trans people, queer people, and you put them at the center of the story, the subjects instead of the objects, you change the world.”
Centering is not as simple as sprinkling in a diverse supporting cast, though, and avoiding objectification on TV is about more than how many lines a character speaks. There’s always the larger narrative, the visual framing, and the subtext to consider. Every show doesn’t need to be about everyone, but when a story is about criminal justice reform, in the context of a murder trial where the victim is an abused woman — and this is thematically linked to this country’s history of white supremacy — it’s a failure to leave women of color at the distant margins.
When Sarah Paulson accepted her Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a miniseries or movie, she made a point to thank the real Marcia Clark — her date for the evening — and made an eloquent pitch for empathy. She talked about how playing Clark allowed her to see beyond the “two-dimensional cardboard cutout I saw on the news,” and apologized for society’s “superficial and careless” judgement of the lawyer. She also made the sole mention of Nicole Brown (and Ron Goldman) on stage during the night.
Meanwhile, there were several mentions of O.J. Simpson throughout the evening. And though FX’s miniseries received five Emmy nominations overall in the best actor and best supporting actor categories — including one for Cuba Gooding Jr.’s portrayal of “The Juice” himself — Paulson was the show’s only nominee in both actress categories. It’s significant then that when The People vs. O.J. Simpson team went on stage to accept the award for outstanding miniseries, in the crowd of people around show runner Ryan Murphy — all those involved in making the series — it was difficult to spot many Black women.
In 2016, though, the model for centering those most vulnerable in the justice system is not hard to find. Alicia Garza, writing about the #BlackLivesMatter movement she started with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, describes it as “an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault” by the state, and that queer and trans Black people are especially targeted “in a hetero-patriarchal society that disposes of us like garbage and simultaneously fetishizes us.” Meanwhile, examples of this injustice, like the stories of Bresha Meadows, Korryn Gaines, or Crystal Edmonds, proliferate daily.
Until these highly-acclaimed legal series are able to create real empathy for women like Meadows, they will continue to fail to meet the expectations of equity or alter the very system they’re attempting to change. Much like our justice system.
Lead Image: Flickr / Charles LeBlanc