Po­lice forces are of­ten glo­ri­fied on tele­vi­sion shows, but more di­verse writ­ers’ rooms tell a dif­fer­ent story

Calgary Herald - - YOU - BETHONIE BUT­LER

In the first sea­son fi­nale of Don­ald Glover’s crit­i­cally ac­claimed FX dram­edy Atlanta, Glover’s char­ac­ter, Earn, wit­nesses a man get fa­tally shot by po­lice. The brief but har­row­ing scene un­folds dur­ing a trip to re­trieve a jacket he lost in an Uber fol­low­ing a night out. Earn, ac­com­pa­nied by his cousin and their friend, looks hor­ri­fied as the Uber driver is shot re­peat­edly while at­tempt­ing to run from a SWAT team.

The episode aired in 2016 in the wake of protests in Fer­gu­son, Mo., over the fa­tal shoot­ing of Michael Brown, and other Black men and women killed dis­pro­por­tion­ately by po­lice.

Un­like the vast ma­jor­ity of shows that grap­pled with po­lice vi­o­lence that year, Atlanta didn’t make the shoot­ing a fo­cal point of the fi­nale. “Did you-all re­ally need all them bul­lets?” his cousin asks im­me­di­ately af­ter the shoot­ing. Mo­ments later, Earn ap­proaches a de­tec­tive to ask if they can check the pock­ets of his jacket, which the Uber driver had been wear­ing when he was killed.

Driv­ing away, the men agree that what they ob­served was “crazy” and even “a lit­tle cool.” The in­ci­dent is never men­tioned again, but the mes­sage lingers: These young, Black men are ac­cus­tomed to the threat and prox­im­ity of po­lice vi­o­lence. “The truth is that many of us have be­come just as in­ured to the stark re­al­ity of po­lice-in­volved shoot­ings,” Joshua Al­ston wrote for Vul­ture.

The episode “is so ef­fec­tive be­cause it re-en­acts one in front of our eyes, then shows us what a blithe re­sponse to such a thing ac­tu­ally looks like.”

Atlanta’s sub­tle ap­proach hasn’t been the norm for TV shows that have grap­pled with po­lice vi­o­lence over the past few decades, with ef­forts of­ten re­duced to “Very Spe­cial Episodes” or brief story arcs that gloss over long-stand­ing dis­par­i­ties.

For decades, stud­ies have shown that pop cul­ture’s pre­vail­ing de­pic­tion of po­lice of­fi­cers — as earnest he­roes whose use of force is al­most al­ways jus­ti­fied — has led to warped views of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

“One of the rea­sons why you’ve seen this glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of po­lice is be­cause of the peo­ple telling the sto­ries,” said Dar­nell Hunt, dean of so­cial sciences and a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy and African-amer­i­can stud­ies at UCLA. “Peo­ple who may be more sensitive to the im­pact of racial pro­fil­ing and po­lice bru­tal­ity on bod­ies of colour usu­ally aren’t in the room to help tell the story. And when they are in the room, gen­er­ally the sto­ries are dif­fer­ent.”

The 1992 Los An­ge­les ri­ots, spurred by the ac­quit­tal of four po­lice of­fi­cers in the bru­tal beat­ing of Rod­ney King, prompted a num­ber of TV shows to air one-off episodes deal­ing with var­i­ous as­pects of the un­rest.

Sea­son 6 of A Dif­fer­ent World — the Cosby Show spinoff fol­low­ing stu­dents at the his­tor­i­cally Black (and fic­tional) Hill­man Col­lege — pre­mièred that fall with a twopart episode in which new­ly­weds Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardi­son) and Whit­ley (Jas­mine Guy) try to reg­is­ter stu­dents to vote af­ter be­ing caught up in the ri­ots while on their honeymoon. The show’s di­verse group of writ­ers and pro­duc­ers, in­clud­ing ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Su­san Fales-hill and pro­ducer-di­rec­tor Deb­bie Allen, had felt a re­spon­si­bil­ity to their view­ers to ad­dress the ri­ots and what led to them.

A Dif­fer­ent World had tack­led in­equal­ity be­fore. As protests re­cently erupted fol­low­ing the deaths of Ge­orge Floyd and Bre­onna Tay­lor, Allen shared a scene from a sea­son 5 episode that “holds just as much weight as it did 28 years ago” in which Ron (Dar­ryl M. Bell) and Dwayne Wayne con­front a racist white stu­dent from a ri­val col­lege.

Other ’90s-era sit­coms with di­verse writ­ers’ rooms also broached racial pro­fil­ing in in­deli­ble scenes that have gone vi­ral sev­eral times over in the decades since.

Nearly 30 years af­ter King’s beat­ing caused na­tion­wide out­rage, writ­ers’ rooms re­main over­whelm­ingly white. Hunt con­ducted a 2017 Color of Change study that an­a­lyzed the racial makeup and marginal­iza­tion of Black writ­ers in writ­ers’ rooms across gen­res. Out of 234 shows with episodes con­sid­ered for the study, two-thirds had no Black writ­ers. Of the nine po­lice pro­ce­du­rals in­cluded in the study, not one had a Black showrun­ner, and three had no Black writ­ers at all.

The study cited Atlanta as an ex­am­ple of the com­pelling sto­ries that can come out of writ­ers’ rooms that in­clude and el­e­vate the voices of peo­ple of colour. The show’s first sea­son set the tone for the fi­nale’s blink-and-you-missed-it commentary on law en­force­ment as early as the pi­lot, in which Earn is ar­rested fol­low­ing a park­ing lot skir­mish de­spite not hav­ing been in­volved. He spends a large por­tion of the sub­se­quent episode await­ing bail along­side mostly Black and brown men, some of whom have ob­vi­ous men­tal health is­sues.

Other sit­coms have nav­i­gated a sim­i­larly pre­car­i­ous bal­ance be­tween com­edy and the harsh re­al­i­ties of racism and in­equal­ity.

NFL com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell re­cently said the league was wrong in its han­dling of those protests, which were in­tended to peace­fully bring at­ten­tion to the on­go­ing po­lice vi­o­lence against Black peo­ple.

Now, as the na­tion reels from more po­lice killings, TV cre­ators and net­works have widely pledged their sup­port for Black lives. No genre is more ripe for an over­haul than crime pro­ce­du­rals, Hunt added.

“There’s a huge amount of op­por­tu­nity to re­think the way we tell po­lice sto­ries — with­out do­ing away with the sto­ries or with­out nec­es­sar­ily do­ing away with po­lice, but by com­pli­cat­ing the premise ... so that we get a bet­ter sense of what some of the prob­lems are with po­lice work,” Hunt said. “I think to do that ap­pro­pri­ately, you need to have peo­ple around the ta­ble who are more sensitive to those is­sues.” The Washington Post


The award-win­ning se­ries Atlanta, which stars Brian Tyree Henry, left, and Don­ald Glover, takes a sub­tle ap­proach that hasn’t been the norm for most small-screen pro­grams that have grap­pled with the is­sue of po­lice vi­o­lence over the past sev­eral decades.

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