As we’ve all seen, when it comes to American police brutality, the gloves are now off and the masks too. Faced with yet more incontrovertible evidence of brutal and racist policing – both the killing of George Floyd and others, and some forces’ response to the public protests – it has become virtually impossible to maintain the image of American law enforcement officers as straightforward protectors and servers of the people.
Fingers are rightly being pointed at those who have sought to project that image, not least the entertainment industry. It is no secret that movies and TV shows have historically presented American policing in a broadly positive light, by accident or design. Hollywood has done much to promote the good deeds of law enforcement, but in failing to critically assess its failings, they could find themselves complicit in a whitewash. Many a cop show has relied on police cooperation – and the conditions that come with it. Even without that, they do not reflect the reality. Who would watch a cop show where half the violent crimes were never solved – as is statistically the case in real life? We prefer dogged action heroes, ingenious sleuths and rule-bending mavericks – usually white and male. Even a comedy series like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, with its harmonious, multicultural police department and casebook of charmingly petty crimes, does its bit to cast American policing in a favourable light.
When it comes to issues of racism within police forces specifically, the picture is equally distorted. The entertainment industry has generally followed the official line: blithe ignorance and denial giving way to grudging admission of a problem, but only as far as the “bad apple” theory. And while it is safe to say the majority of law-enforcement personnel are not racist, the existence of institutional racism is repeatedly denied. The US attorney general, William Barr, did exactly that last Sunday, firmly stating, “I don’t think that the law enforcement is systemically racist.” On screen as well as off, that position is no longer tenable.
This is a history that started from a very low point, if you consider DW Griffiths’ notorious Birth of a Nation as a cop movie. In the story’s time frame – the post-civil war Reconstruction period – modern policing barely existed. Thus, the nascent Ku Klux Klan are depicted as the valiant vanguard of law and order, galloping in to rescue white folks from the marauding blacks and re-establish good, old white supremacy. This was institutional racism in its most brazen and heroic form, and you could say popular culture has been rowing back from it ever since – albeit slowly.
By the civil rights era, Hollywood was at least going through the motions of acknowledging police racism. We saw it most clearly at the time in Oscar-winner In the Heat of the Night, in which Sydney…