by Faith Pennick
In my opinion, the most compelling character on television right now is Barb Hanlon. Her presence looms large over the shape-shifting ABC drama American Crime. As the title suggests, the show begins with a crime: a murder in Modesto, California. The victim is Barb’s son, Matt Skokie. Matt’s wife, Gwen was also assaulted and is fighting for her life. At first glance, the crime appears to be the ultimate violation of a young, idyllic, middle-class white couple with a bright future ahead of them. As the narrative unfolds, however, the truth lays waste to the façade of Matt and Gwen’s union. The crime and its aftershocks transform the lives of the surviving victim, the accused assailants and the loved ones of all involved.
American Crime is a show in which nearly all of its inhabitants are in flux. All except for Barb. Portrayed with fearlessness by Desperate Housewives alumna Felicity Huffman, Barb is an immovable object when it comes to Matt and the crime that took his life. Her son was an Iraq war veteran, killed by a junkie Black man and his “illegal” Latino accomplices (although one young Latino who is arrested for the crime is not undocumented nor an accomplice). In Barb’s mind, it is another example of how people of color are scourges to American exceptionalism. Like right-wing pundits Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage and numerous race-baiting GOP politicians, Barb appears to embraces the generic fallacy: that White people work hard, and all Black and brown people want to “take”; whether it’s property, lives, government “entitlements” or places at prestigious colleges.
Yes, Barb Hanlon is a racist. Her malady hides in plain sight, as it does with most racists. She doesn’t bear swastika tattoos. We have yet to hear her utter the n-word. She doesn’t have to. When Barb points at a Black detective whose investigation found that her murdered son was a drug dealer, and says “YOU” with all of the rage of a Klan rally, we know what Barb is really saying.
Each week I tune into American Crime, waiting for the moment of conversion—the moment when I can comfortably abhor Barb. That moment hasn’t arrived yet. Attention must be paid beyond Barb’s bigotry to the complicated, frayed tapestry that is her life. Even though Barb’s racism rings clear as a bell, she is not a simplistic racist caricature. Credit for that should be shared among American Crime creator John Ridley, his deft writing staff, and the care and formidable acting chops Felicity Huffman brings to this role. Keeping a potentially hateful character from becoming a one-dimensional miscreant takes true sensitivity and empathy from the artist(s) bringing her to life. Which is why Ridley and Huffman should win all the Emmys this fall.
Watching Barb each week is observing a woman who was dealt shitty hands most of her adult life. When ex-husband Russ (Timothy Hutton) comes to Modesto after Matt’s death, Barb rejects his motives as well as his right to grieve. Russ was a gambler who abandoned Barb and left her penniless, forcing Barb and her two sons to move to a housing project with a majority Black population. “Do you know what those people did to us day after day?” Barb yells at Russ in the pilot episode, unleashing a fury that cut through the screen like a machete. I cringed reflexively at the way she said the words those people, but it wasn’t quite the same as say…a tea party “patriot” sneering the phrase on Fox News. And having grown up in Englewood—what many would consider a rough neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side (and it’s only gotten rougher since my childhood)—I experienced firsthand the cruelty of being on the other side of “other.” I still remember “playing” with a group of kids, with the unfulfilled hope that they would like me, and having one of them intentionally drop a huge rock on my foot. I was seven years old. So, yeah. I can’t front and say that Barb didn’t trigger a sympathetic chord despite her bigoted allusion.
Later in the season, Muslim convert Aliyah, sister of accused killer Carter Nix, organizes a march in support of her brother. Aliyah and members of her mosque have launched a campaign to have Carter’s case reexamined, suggesting Carter is an innocent victim of racial profiling. Barb wants to have a counter-rally, but has a difficult time finding people to stand with her. A hairdresser who expressed sympathy to Barb tells her she can corral a group of people to join her. A group of white “separatists”.
As Barb uneasily considers the woman’s offer, the realization hits her. “Am I a racist?” Barb asks herself as much as she asks her ally, victims’ rights advocate Nancy. Nancy doesn’t say no, and I nod at the TV.
Like many poor and working-class white people, Barb has cocooned herself: partly in her white skin, partly in the illusion of self-reliance. As a woman who got out of the projects and is now part of the middle class, Barb is convinced that she stands above brusque displays of racism.
Barb wants unequivocal punishment for the killer(s) of her son, the death penalty; no doubt her character is ignorant to the racial implications of capital punishment. She believes staunchly that Matt was targeted because he was white, and she and Nancy successfully pressure the county prosecutor to label her son’s murder a hate crime. Her unbending, “black and white” view of the world is figurative idealism fueled by literal bigotry, and it’s not lost on her own family members.
Barb is hurt that her other son Mark was wary of telling her that he is engaged to Richelle, an Asian-American woman. Barb meets the fiancée; their initial conversation devolves into Barb defensively asking Richelle if she and Mark are marrying “because [Mark] has something to work out with me?” Barb’s sorrowful arrogance is no less acute than if she had called Richelle a “chink” to her face.
Despite these micro-aggressions, what complicates Barb for me is that she is a mother suffering the gravest of losses. I don’t know how magnanimous or politically correct I would be in her situation. When I look at women like Sybrina Fulton or Lucia McBath, I am sincerely stunned at how they maintain their composure in public. These women live in the hell that so many African American mothers fear on a daily basis, that their sons or daughters will be struck down by violence. If either of them railed against white people the way fictitious Barb Hanlon does towards men of color, they would be excoriated in the media for their prejudices and “spewing hatred”, which to some extent happens to Barb off-screen. But aren’t Barb’s reactions just as human, even if they are nowhere near as dignified?
But I also wonder: would Barb be just as angry if Matt had died in the streets of Baghdad? Would she direct her inconsolable tempest at a white, Republican president who took advantage of young people of all races who lacked affluence and needed the opportunities that serving in the armed forces would provide? Who misled a country in mourning into a war that ripped so many soldiers away from their families forever? Would she implicitly indict George W. Bush, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld—as those people?
We know from the real world that the U.S. criminal justice system is dysfunctional (American Crime examines that as well, but that’s a separate essay for someone else to write). As American Crime heads to its season finale—possibly a permanent hiatus, if viewers continue to stay away (ed note: Nope, it’s been renewed.)—the question is not whether Barb gets “justice” for her slain son, but if she realizes that a guilty verdict will not fix her broken family or her fractured soul. If episode ten (that aired May 7) is any indication, then Barb may have reached the same conclusion I did.
Faith Pennick is a filmmaker and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently working on a feature screenplay titled Double Effect that she plans to direct in 2016. Follow her on Twitter @orgchaosmedia. For more information on her films, visit www.orgchaos.com