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How the Black Cop Trope Sold the Fantasy of Post-Racial America

They represent — and critique — ‘colorblind justice‘ in movies and TV. But audiences still walk away believing the system they represent is a force for good

Are Black cops in TV and movies the only people who still believe in a dream of a post-racial America?

It sure seems like it. 

At the moment, there’s Watchmen on HBO, which stars a masked superhero cop played brilliantly by Regina King. Over on network television, Ice-T stays busy playing streetwise Sgt. Fin Tutuola in NBC’s long-running Law & Order: SVU. On that same network, Brooklyn Nine-Nine features Andre Braugher and Terry Crews. Across the Atlantic, Idris Elba still occasionally lends his swagger to DCI John Luther on the BBC. And in movie theaters, there’s currently a pair of Black cops in action films (Black & Blue and 21 Bridges) that each speak directly to the culture but in very different ways.

In Black & Blue, Naomie Harris is a policewoman who’s also an Afghanistan veteran. She’s recently returned to her hometown of New Orleans, and like many vets, she joins the police force. Ostensibly, she wants to protect and serve and bring justice to her community. She’s one of the good cops. But that puts her in the crosshairs of the bad ones. After she’s betrayed by dirty cops, shot and nearly killed, she must return to the Black community and ask them to protect her — a traitor as a Black cop — and to save her from her blue brothers. 

Meanwhile, in 21 Bridges, Chadwick Boseman is less critical of police violence; instead, he just shoots perps. That’s the whole reason why he’s brought in to handle the central crime of the film. Eight cops are killed in a compromised sting operation. The NYPD wants justice. Boseman is the Black cop who shoots people and gets away with it. Not even Internal Affairs can touch him. In a post-Black Lives Matter America, this single fact cannot be seen as anything other than obvious symbolic provocation: This Black cop shoots people, too, muthafuckas! What y’all think about that?! 

Both 21 Bridges and Black & Blue, however, ask the same questions about what justice is, what it was and what it should be as they attempt to answer what justice really looks (or feels) like. We watch these stories, too, fully aware of their social commentary on the very real police brutality that occurs all across America. In that way, the Black cop trope functions as a lens through which we can entertainingly view our country and measure its progress against our stated ideals of freedom. Black cops show us where the system fails to protect “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

By my estimation, the Black cop trope started with Norman Jewison’s 1967 Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night. The story was about this super-sharp Black detective from Philadelphia traveling down through Mississippi, and after his wrongful arrest, he winds up helping the local police solve a murder. The film was a cultural moment. Not just because the Black cop was the hero — Sidney Poitier as Det. Virgil Tibbs was clearly smarter than everyone else — but because that same Black man slapped the taste out of the mouth of a rich old white man. No one had ever seen that in a Hollywood movie before. 

In a contemporaneous review, the Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film “is a gripping and suspenseful murder mystery that effects a feeling of greater importance by its veneer of social significance and the illusion of depth in its use of racial color. The greatest significance lies in the breakthrough of the Negro detective hero in the John Ball novel from which Stirling Silliphant adapted the screenplay, Sidney Poitier’s creation of the character on the screen and the potential for sequels in subsequent Ball novels.”

Notably, in the late 1960s, he was still a Negro. Yet, thanks to that one slap, the Black cop trope shocked American audiences, as if it were their face or their hand, depending on the audience. 

A couple of years later, the narrator from a documentary called, aptly enough, Black Cop, intones, “The Black cop is the man in the middle. He seeks acceptance in the police community, which reflects the white society and the status quo. On the other hand, he’s a Black man from a Black community, which is demanding change, a community which continues to ask him: Which side is he on?” 

A young Black Power activist in the film states it even more plainly: “Black man as a policeman is out of the category of being Black any longer. Because just the mere thing of him being a policeman shows that he’s turned against Blackness. Because to be a policeman he has to think like a policeman, because the origination of the police was the white man, in this country, anyway. So that’s why he has to think like the white man; he has to act like the white man; he has to treat you like the white man treats you. So if you riding down the street and they both stop you, he’s gonna treat you worse than the white man does to prove to him that he’s qualified to be a policeman with him. So, therefore, he’s nothing but an Uncle Tom.”

Ice Cube spit this exact same complaint in N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police”:

But don’t let it be a black and a white one
’Cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top
Black police showin’ out for the white cop
Ice Cube will swarm
On any motherfucker in a blue uniform

That N.W.A. album was released in 1988, nearly 20 years after Black Cop. Yet nothing has changed — young Black men still fear crossing paths with a Black cop since he must prove which side he’s on and has used violence against Black people to convey his answer. 

To that end, in Black and Blue, an older Black cop, a vet on the force, asks Harris, “You think you Black? You think them your people? Well, they’re not. We are. Don’t you ever forget that. These streets are a war zone. You’re blue now.” Later on in the film, reframing the racial cops-versus-Black people theme of the movie, the main bad guy, a dirty cop, tells Harris, “You got a hard choice to make, right now — are you one of us, or one of them?”

Conveniently, though, this isn’t the question Harris focuses on. At one point, in a line of dialog she encapsulates her whole worldview in a movie poster tagline: “Murder is murder, don’t matter who you are.” Her policewoman character is colorblind justice personified. With a rather heavy-handed allusion to Black Lives Matter, her Black cop tells audiences that when you take lives, it “don’t matter who you are.” 

You see, as a Black cop she judges officers and criminals not by the color of their skin or the blue of their uniform, but the content of their character. This is the American ideal, the MLK dream, writ large on a 30-foot movie screen. The saccharine lure of the Black cop trope is how it allows both its audience and creators to believe that not only is the Black cop a force for good, but that the system he’s fighting for is also good. The Black cop counteracts those “few bad apples.”

To go back in time once more, in the 1980s, such racial color-blindness was embodied by the roguish, funny Black cop, an outsider who’s an insider, too. There was Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop:

Danny Glover’s “I’m getting too old for this shit” foil to Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon:

And, of course, the inimitable Reginald VelJohnson in Die Hard:

By the early 1990s, however, things stopped being so funny and the Black cop had found hip-hop. As such, the Black cop movies of that era were typically grimy, urban tales about working undercover in drug dens. The films (e.g., classics like New Jack City and Deep Cover) were motivated by tough-on-crime mainstream American ideals of how to save the Black community: white and Black cops working together to clean-up the streets, using a little extra force when necessary.

Ironically, nowadays, all the rapping Ices who once hated cops make millions by playing them, with Ice Cube switching from saying “fuck the police” to playing a boy in blue in a pair of films with Kevin Hart, and Ice-T playing Sgt. Fin Tutuola for nearly two decades. 

But the real outsized shift for the Black cop trope wasn’t gangsta rappers turned pretend cops. What signaled the new era was when, in 2001, Denzel Washington played a Black cop for the second time in Training Day. As Roger Ebert wrote at the time: “Training Day is an equal-opportunity police brutality picture, depicting a modern Los Angeles in which the black cop is slimier and more corrupt than anybody ever thought the white cops were. Alonzo Harris, played by Denzel Washington, makes Popeye Doyle look like Officer Friendly.”

Training Day wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if the racial roles were reversed. If the corrupt officer played by Denzel was white and Ethan Hawke’s role as the squeaky-clean trainee was the Black cop, police corruption and brutality would come off quite different. The fact that it’s a Black man abusing his power — the same power that all cops have — is what makes the movie’s critique of corrupt cops and America work so powerfully. 

A recent Canadian film called Black Cop utilizes this same power move with equally revealing results. In it, we find a uniformed beat cop in an unnamed city on the East Coast who “spends a day treating white civilians the way white cops treat Black people — with unnecessary hostility, physical threats and even violence.” As you watch this lawless Black cop pull people over, subject them to unnecessary searches and harassment, even violence, his police brutality jumps out. White people aren’t supposed to be treated like that, especially by a Black cop who uses violence with impunity. This calls into question how much power all cops possess. 

How much progress, though, does the Black cop trope suggest we’ve actually made?

America’s favorite dream is that we can one day become a post-racial nation. That obviously would require structural changes to guarantee equality for all Americans. For instance, cops must be held accountable for their crimes — regardless of the color of their skin. We must also recognize that the social order Black cops enforce has inarguably been racist, which is why Black cops get treated as traitors. Like the two-faced Janus, the Black cop lives with a split identity: Uncle Toms who hide behind their badge and gun. 

This makes their characters dramatically compelling. It’s also why they serve as such a flimsy apology or scathing critique of American values.