Depictions of African-American police officers in television and movies may have a real-world impact on police officers and the citizens that they serve, according to a new research project by Sam Houston State University associate professor of criminal justice Howard Henderson and Franklin T. Wilson, from Indiana State University.
While the presence of African-American officers has been shown to increase the perceived legitimacy of police departments, the criminologists believe that media depictions of African-American officers may play a role in delegitimizing African-American officers, both in the eyes of the general public and the African-American community, in particular.
The recent box office success of the comedy “Ride Along,” starring Ice Cube and Kevin Hart, and the 2013 cancelation of the television drama “Ironsides,” starring Blair Underwood, represent the most recent example of an established trend, according to the criminologists.
In their recently released study, “The Criminological Cultivation of African-American Municipal Police Officers: Sambo or Sellout,” Henderson and Wilson reported that African-American city police officers have rarely been depicted as leading characters in theatrically released films over the first 40 years of the cop film genre.
When depicted, African-Americans are overwhelmingly portrayed as comedic entertainment while white officers are not.
Published in Race and Justice, the official journal of The American Society of Criminology Division on People of Color and Crime, the article explores the impact such depictions might have on the recruitment, retention, and public perceptions of African-American city police officers.
“Given the racially charged nature of this past year with instances like the Paula Deen case, the Trayvon Martin verdict, the recent ‘Loud Music Case’ of Michael Dunn, among others along with the profit driven nature of entertainment media, I fear the pattern we have discovered may not be a matter of negligence on the part of Hollywood,” said Wilson, an assistant professor of criminal justice, who led the research. “Instead, it may be a reflection that many United States citizens are not ready to accept an African-American in a serious authoritative role.”
The study of 112 films revealed that white officer depictions dominated the genre, appearing in the lead or joint leading roles in 89 percent of the films; African-American officers were depicted in 19 percent of the films, while other minorities only appeared in 3 percent of the films.
While the study examined films released after 1971, arguably the start of the modern cop film genre with “Dirty Harry,” 95 percent of African-American depictions did not occur until after 1987.
White officers were only teamed with an African-American in 9 percent of the films that depicted a white officer in a leading role. In contrast, of the films that depicted an African-American officer in a leading role, 52 percent depicted the officer with another officer, all but one of which was white.
In addition to the 40-year domination of white officer depictions and the apparent requirement of a white costar to justify an African-American in a leading role, the study revealed that 52 percent of African-American officer depictions portrayed the officer serving as comedic entertainment. White officer comedic portrayals resulted in only 17 percent, which is reduced to only 3 percent if excluding films where the white officer is teamed with a minority officer or minority civilian.
“Most people view films one at a time and do not consider depictions as a whole; this is what sets our study apart,” Henderson said.
“When Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) from the ‘Lethal Weapon’ series is depicted stranded on his toilet due to a bomb being placed under it or being asked to strip down to his heart-covered boxers and cluck like a chicken to distract a criminal so that the white officer can save the day, we see individual scenes that may make us laugh,” Henderson said. “What we do not see is how overall these depictions are eerily similar to, if not the continuation of, the presentation of African-Americans as comedic outlets that date back to the slavery experience. Minstrel shows of the mid-1830s as well as the Stepin Fetchit character of film in the 1920s and 1930s regularly used derogatory comedic depictions of African-Americans.”
The study also revealed that while several films touched on the struggle many African-American officers face in maintaining a balance of loyalty to the African-American community and to the police force, only four films directly addressed the issue—“In Too Deep” (1999), “Shaft” (1999), “Training Day” (2001) and “Dirty” (2005).
The researchers note that in “Shaft,” Samuel L. Jackson’s character captures the dilemma by stating that he is “too black for the uniform, too blue for the brothers.”
The study reveals that most often an officer is faced with either selling out the African-American community or quitting the police force.
“Even if we look to television programs, we are hard pressed to find African-American police officers depicted in leading roles,” Henderson said. “We see many supporting roles but no non-comedic city police officer leading roles that take place in the United States in the past or the present.”
Wilson points out that there have been a few attempts, such as the 2005 attempt to revive the 1970s television series “Kojak” with Ving Rhames as the leading character, and more recently, there was an attempt to revive the 1960s and 70s television show “Ironsides,” with the 2013 version starring Blair Underwood; however, “Kojak” was canceled after approximately one season and “Ironsides” was canceled after only four episodes.
“We do not know if such portrayal patterns have an impact on recruitment, retention and public perceptions of African-American city police officers yet but it certainly points to a need for a closer examination,” Henderson said. The full study is available online atraj.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/02/05/2153368713517396.abstract.