The Atlantic

The Innocent Man Tells Half a Story

The new Netflix true-crime series lasers in on miscarriages of justice, but doesn’t fully question how they came to pass.
Source: Netflix

The opening scene of , a new Netflix true-crime series hitting streaming shelves just in time for the holidays, features a television, a prominently displayed copy of by John Grisham, and a quote from Anaïs Nin: “We see things as we are, not as they are.” Anaïs Nin? The novelist, diarist, and pioneer of female erotica? It’s hard not to feel as if she’s cited a little arbitrarily here, positioned right next to Grisham, the undisputed king of legal thrillers, at the beginning of a true-crime series that seems tailored by algorithm for wants viewers to think about the unique biases—formed through a knotty tangle of life experiences—that each person inevitably brings to a situation, whether watching a TV show or serving on a jury. It’s a setup for a series that suggests it will think deeply about not just crime and punishment, but also circumstance and history. In making the case for Ward and Fontenot’s wrongful conviction, seems of a piece with some of Netflix’s previous true-crime hits. Like , it investigates a series of heinous attempts on the part of police to secure convictions. Like , it re-creates snippets of the two murders in moody, shadowy footage, imbuing with a jarring kind of creepiness. It spends significant time with the families of the dead women, as if to preempt criticism that true-crime series can end up obscuring the female victims in favor of the men behind bars. It’s also structured in that familiarly manipulative way, spending generous amounts of time reiterating already known facts before dropping colossal twists at the end of each episode. lays out neat timelines, stacks of evidence, an admirable number of in-person interviews, and a compelling argument that police and prosecutors in Ada unlawfully collaborated in getting four men convicted of murder. What it doesn’t explain is why the show’s events came to pass. The superlative true-crime series of the past few years don’t just re-litigate old cases and (very occasionally) produce definitive answers; they investigate the cultural and societal factors at play. Both Ezra Edelman’s Oscar-winning and Ryan Murphy’s used the same obsessively covered crime to reveal sharp insights about race, celebrity, and tabloid culture. Netflix’s own framed itself around a murder, but ended up telling a about trauma, recovery, and fighting for justice. With Ada, ’s director, Clay Tweel, has the opportunity to examine a place that popular culture virtually never makes time for. Ada is, Grisham explains in the first episode, the kind of close-knit community with a church on every corner, where “everybody goes to the high-school football game on Friday night.” But it’s also the kind of place where, when a woman is murdered, there are a disproportionate number of plausible suspects with a documented history of violence against women. The culture in Ada seems to merit more analysis than it gets. briefly details one of the most notorious moments in local history, when a vigilante mob in 1909 lynched four citizens suspected of murder. But it doesn’t reveal how a grisly image of the lynching was for years with the caption, .

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