In ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace’, Ryan Murphy proves—again!—he can never get race right

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan as imagined by Ryan Murphy.
Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan as imagined by Ryan Murphy.
Image: Jeff Daly/FX
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Andrew Cunanan was half-white, half-Filipino—and so is actor Darren Criss, who plays the ‘90s serial killer in American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. That’s the extent of the conversation about race in the current FX series produced by Ryan Murphy, who is also the creative brains behind television hits like Nip/Tuck, Glee, Scream Queens, Feud, and American Horror Story. On July 1, Murphy will join his fellow showrunner Shonda Rhimes at Netflix. The 5-year contract is believed to be the most expensive in television history, putting up to $300 million in Murphy’s pocket.

“His unfaltering dedication to excellence and to giv[ing] voice to the underrepresented, to showcase a unique perspective or just to shock the hell out of us, permeates his genre-shattering work,” Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix, told Deadline of the deal, adding that Murphy’s stories are “broad and diverse.”

Perhaps. But Murphy’s on-screen history suggests he gives the most depth and complexity to stories of rich, white people. The first season of Feud, for instanceis about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford; the second season will be about Buckingham Palace. Scream Queens was a horror series about a mostly-white sorority in a southern American university. He directed the film adaption of Eat, Pray, Love starring Julia Roberts, which is about a wealthy white woman who travels the world to discover herself (and have good sex).

But Murphy has a glaring blind spot when it comes to telling the stories of people of color. Just look at his biggest television hit, Glee, which was where Criss landed his first primetime role: yes, there is an Asian American girl, an Asian American boy, a disabled boy, a black girl, a Latina girl who came out as bi, one white cheerleader who came out as bi, one white gay boy, one gay boy who passed as white (Criss), and many, many more white straight characters.

“It’s still about whiteness at the center and people of color as accessories who have a little bit of a story line, but are seen as sort of decorative accents,” Ronak K. Kapadia, PhD, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explained. “He has this sort of shallow understanding of a kind of racial justice project in relation to TV work.”

This season’s American Crime Story, featuring half-Filipino American Cunanan, is a continuation of Murphy’s lack of nuance when he attempts to focus on minority-focused narratives. As noted by Slate’s Inkoo Kang, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is preoccupied with examining ’90s homophobia particularly in rich, white communities—it is not so preoccupied with anti-Asian racism or Cunanan’s potential self-hatred of being Asian.

To Murphy’s credit, he doesn’t exactly whitewash Cunanan. Criss is half-Filipino. You see cursory acknowledgments that Cunanan is Asian and how that plays out in the conservative San Diego community where he lived. It’s an incestuous community—one which Vanity Fair journalist Maureen Orth describes as “Omaha by the bay” in her book, Vulgar Favors, on which the show is based.

When he auditions to be an escort, for instance, Cunanan is told that no one wants a smart Asian—he is not a desired archetype by the rich, white men he wants to attract. Broadway performer Jon Jon Briones, who is Filipino-born, steals the show towards the end of the series as Cunanan’s father, Modesto. We see that Cunanan’s delusions of grandeur, propensity for taking shortcuts, and obsession with materialistic wealth and status stems from Modesto, who in the show (and in real life) fled back to the Philippines in 1988 to evade embezzlement charges. Sometimes, Orth reported, the real-life Cunanan would pretend to be Jewish.

But when Cunanan—real and fictional versions—did acknowledge his Asian background, it was a lie constructed through a fabulist’s filter: his father owned pineapple plantations back in the Philippines, he would say, or his father was the personal pilot of Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines who was known for her extravagance and marriage to a dictator.

“This is not just a story about how much alternative sexuality or sex panic there was in the 1990s,” Kapadia said. “It’s also the story about a multi-racial mixed-race person from California in the very moment in which California’s becoming a majority minority state and there were all of the kinds of questions around the new face of America into the new millennium.”

But Murphy doesn’t touch these complex racial points—about how Cunanan may have struggled with his racial identity, about, even briefly, what it was like to be a mixed-race kid going to the exclusive mostly-white private school he attended. Race is not given the complexity of storytelling it deserves—the complexity Murphy so readily gives sexuality.

We will never know Cunanan’s exact relationship to his racial identity, just as we will never know his exact motives for killing. Those explanations died with his suicide on July 23, 1997. But we do know Murphy’s interpretation of Cunanan—and unfortunately, Murphy doesn’t seem to think that race matters at all.