Black Cop Films Story

by Seve Chambers
There’s a lot to be said about Black representation in the current wave of films. More Black actors are now in leading roles, and few studios want to deal with bad publicity from a lack of inclusion. In some ways this is a golden era for Black representation on the bigger screen. What is curious about this moment is the number of roles with Black actors and actresses playing law enforcement. Or the number of films that deal with, and center around, the tense relationship between Black communities and police forces. Black and Blue. Monsters and Men. Black KKKlansmen. 21 Bridges. The Hate U Give. Queen and Slim. All are from the past year alone. And this doesn’t include the TV side – from Angela Bassett as the main role in 9-1-1, to Regina King in the adaptation of the comic book, Watchmen. The portrayals of Black people in uniform is, strikingly, at an all time high.
The explosion of diversity in films is not unusual. There seems to be a trend with movies addressing unrest within the Black community. As the writer Greg Tate has pointed out, there’s a tendency for Hollywood to react to these events. When the protest of the 60s gave way to messages of Black empowerment in the 70s, the Blaxploitation era was ushered in. (It’s worth noting that Hollywood made these films on the verge of bankruptcy – the likes of Shaft and Superfly saved the industry from financial disaster.) The late 80s and early 90s, marked by the Rodney King beating, the L.A. Riots, the murder of Yusef Hawkins and so on, saw an increase of films dealing with the drug trade, street gangs and a new wave of militancy that was often connected to Hip-Hop. When these films cease to be profitable, or a new trend comes along, the output of Black mainstream films and ones with Black leads seems to drop drastically. Some have said the Blaxploitation era came to an end with the Wiz being a dud at the box office – hence the decade-long gap before the new wave of Black cinema. Not that these issues ever fade, but when numerous incidents force the discussion of racial inequality into the spotlight, Hollywood seems to follow suit. Thus, the current era marked by the Black Lives Matter protests, #oscarssowhite and a resurgence of white nationalism, is the driving force behind the current output.
Hollywood is a business like any other, and there are trends which result in the mass production of any type of film. But the relationship between cops and Black communities has been depicted onscreen for a while. Take a look at the buddy cop genre, a subgenre of the buddy film where, in some cases, a Black and white person from different backgrounds are paired together. Much has been written about the Buddy genre and how it often functions as a statement on race relations in America – and a projection where racial issues can be addressed within the span of a film. Along with films about slavery and the civil rights era, films about law enforcement seem to be pumped out when Hollywood scrambles to address the Black problem. And when buddy cop films tries to be neutral in discussing race, they tend to rely on stereotypes where the Black cop is teaching the white one how to be cool or more sympathetic. Perhaps coincidentally, one of the most popular franchises of that genre – Bad Boys – is getting a sequel next year.
What seems to be new with the current wave of cop films is how they tend to center around Black ones. Monsters and Men was the second time John David Washington played a Black cop, right after the critically acclaimed Black KKKlansmen. David Owyelo takes matters into his own hands in the supernatural thriller Don’t Let Go. Naomie Harris, in Black and Blue, is a cop looking to stay connected to her community. All try to depict the complicated motivations and relationships with Black people joining law enforcement. Usually the Black protagonist is the morally straight, three dimensional character who believes in justice, while the rest of the police force is so flat they seem to be ripped from a Black Panther Party newspaper. The hero has to navigate being seen as a threat to the Black community, and pushing back against police forces with an ‘us vs them’ mentality. They are oftentimes questioned by both sides for their actions, and experience a crisis of confidence when they find corruption within police ranks. One has to wonder if Chadwick Boseman plays one in the upcoming 21 Bridges (I haven’t seen 21 Bridges or Queen and Slim as of this publishing date).
It’s curious how Black cops are at the forefront now with so many films. When one looks at the incidents in the news, it’s largely non-Blacks officer at the center of controversy. Which is something of a head scratcher that Hollywood chooses to view the matter with Black officers. It certainly provides roles for Black actors, but what does it add to the conversation? Perhaps it’s easier to depict the different worlds of police forces and Black neighborhoods with someone that can walk between them. Certainly the conversation shouldn’t be flattened to Black or white, us vs them, and fictional depictions should not always feel bound to reality. But if Black cops aren’t really the problem, is Hollywood saying they are the solution? And who does it serve to place them in the spotlight, so to speak?
At the center of these films is an extensional question for Black cops: can they serve as forces of good within their own communities? Or once they don the badges, does their allegiance shift to a different side? These films tend to muddle the debate by centering around individuals and their experiences. Rarely do they dive into the possible biases of police forces, and society as a whole. Some may not enjoy hearing this, but as most unjustified shootings and incidents of excessive force are usually with white cops, race and bias can never be ruled out. Because of this, the conversation rarely seems to move forward as the focus shifts from case to case, rather than stepping back and looking at the larger problems. The individualistic approach may serve the directors, and writers, so they can wrap up the story within two hours and deliver an enjoyable film. But the tendency to end on a hopeful, one person can change the narrative note, is sometimes at odds with how many incidents have been documented and if these things have changed the way police forces operate.
On the other side you have the Black community on the receiving end, searching for solutions to deal with this. For example, Amandla Steinberg is the witness of a police shooting in the Hate U Give. If Beale Street Could Talk depicts a Black couple broken by a white cop. Queen and Slim seems to go the route of a Bonnie and Clyde couple fleeing the law. This experience, while tiring, is probably more realistic and informative in the ways Black communities are impacted by this. At their best, these films examine the damage and dysfunctionality from harmful police policies. Unfortunately, these films are usually ignored by the audience who should see them: white people who are often represented by the flag waving, Fox News consuming, Blue Lives Matter supporters. For Black folks these films are preaching to the choir, so the side who could benefit from these depictions are usually insulated from the conversation.
One doesn’t need a film like Black and Blue to know about the levels of corruption that can exist within any police force. In Bed-Stuy, where this author is from, the same premise had unfolded a decade ago. A rookie cop named Adrian Schoolcraft, just like Alicia in Black and Blue, came to the 81st precinct of Brooklyn, New York, with the same intention of doing good. Instead, he found himself being surrounded by people who had no respect for the neighborhood. In a series of audio tapes he secretly recorded and leaked to the Village Voice newspaper, he caught his fellow cops making comments like “You’re working in Bed-Stuy: where everybody’s probably got a warrant,” to the demands of quotas being met. Even worse was the exposed pattern of downgrading crimes, something which was confirmed by many police officers within the NYPD. This violation of public trust not only puts lives at risk, but makes it seem like police forces are driven by numbers at worst. Which, at least for the 81st precinct, seemed like a standard practice. This is made worse by the fact that nationally, crime has dropped across the country. Instead of making it seem like neighborhoods in New York City were part of the trend, it called into question the desire of the NYPD to keep the public safe.

Google Robert Charles, from the “RESISTANCE” series by Najee Dorsey. Based on: Historic tragedy of the race riot in 1900 New Orleans. On a sweltering night on July 23rd, 1900, one man resisted the brutality of three New Orleans police officers and ignited what was called the “Crime of the Century”, and began a week-long orgy of murder, violence, and hatred on the streets of the old city. Refusing to be lynched by the mobs, this lone black man waged battle with white men, military, and police on a narrow street on July 27th 1900. To learn more just Google Robert Charles, of New Orleans.

In an era where cell phone footage, and now body cams, are used to provide proof beyond doubt, it was thought that video footage would help with swaying public opinion from ‘that Black individual was probably doing something wrong,’ to ‘they wasn’t lying.’ And in some cases that appears to be true. But in a time where everyone seemingly believes what they want, with a president that embodies this, how do you change a society that appears to be at odds with admitting wrongdoings? Or agencies and institutions that, in many cases, will conceal and muddle the truth? In the case of Adrian Schoolcraft, he was not rewarded for his commitment to values or used as a learning lesson for police forces everywhere. The very precinct, and police force he worked for, had him committed to a psych ward and he ended up suing them for this.

Films like Black and Blue believe in the truth, and that people must do the right thing. But at this moment in time, the path to change is muddled by those who appear to be entrenched in defending their own interests. It feels like everyone is increasingly isolated within their own bias. And while the film medium provides an escape for two hours, anyone on the side of pro-Black Lives, or pro-cops, will probably remain on their respective sides after leaving the theater.
Who, then, is the truth setting free?

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Seve Chambers is a journalist based in Brooklyn. He is currently working with Brian Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron’s former collaborator, on his memoir.

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