5-O. Black and White. Boys in Blue. While the ever-growing slang terms for police officer evolve year after year, the complex relationship between Black America and law enforcement officials remains consistently volatile and intricately bound to race relations of past and present. Similarly, African American actors have continuously portrayed police officials for decades now, although these portrayals most often occur in action packed comedies where racial tension and stereotypes are used mainly as a source of humor rather than explicit social commentary.
While Black actors and actresses should not be obligated to place their race at the center of their character unless the story requires them to do so, the history of Jim Crow-era law enforcement, racial profiling, and stop-and-frisking remains a stark reality that complicates their character’s allegiance to his police force and profession and to his family, friends and community members. A retrospective look at the most known Black cop characters in film and television reveals much of the contradicting and complementary ways in which these actors and their characters have affected not only Hollywood but also the country’s image of its many police forces and vice versa.
Acting legend Sidney Poitier played the iconic role of Mr. Virgil Tibbs in the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night, a portrayal that surely resulted in casting directors considering more African Americans for police roles both on the silver screen and the small screen. The major success of Eddie Murphy’s film debut in the 1982 comedy 48 Hrs. set a bevy of black cop-white cop buddy films into motion, spawning classics such as Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop, Miami Vice and Rush Hour. Then, in 2002, Denzel Washington took home his first Academy Award for his controversial role as Detective Alonzo Harris, a character that many critics insist propagated negative stereotypes of the Black male brute already prevalent in mainstream media.
At the same time, many television portrayals of Black cops were widely-received as multidimensional and less stereotypical, such as the patriarchal Detective Carl Winslow in Family Matters. Black female cops also made a huge mark on the historical trope, most memorably with Holly Robinson Peete in the original 21 Jump Street, S. Epatha Merkerson in Law and Order and Sonja Sohn in The Wire. Judging from the lack of lead black female cop characters in films, though, movie executives have yet to believe a Black woman cop would be able to draw enough moviegoers to the theater. Thus, the predominantly male-dominated portrayal of truly iconic Black cops.
This February, actor Steve Harris joined the long line of Black cops on television by landing the major role of Detective Isaiah “Bird” Freeman in the new primetime suspense Awake. EBONY.com spoke with Harris to learn more about his latest character, as well as his thoughts on previous Black cop portrayals and Black America’s complicated history with the police.
EBONY: How has your own interpretation of Detective Freeman changed now that the series has begun? Have you learned anything about him?
Steve Harris: Well you know everything evolves and grows so the characters change a bit, but not too much actually, because the dynamic between Freeman and [his partner] Michael has been sort of a long standing relationship. Now, the event that has changed our relationship a bit is Michael's being in two worlds. When I took the role, I knew that would be a part of it.
EBONY: So there are two Det. Freeman’s in “Awake.” Which Det. Freeman is better at what he does?
SH: My character operates the same in both worlds, the only difference is in one reality I’m [Michael’s] partner and in the other world I’m not. They really are the same person. They work the same way. It’s just that there’s different realities for him and different connections.
EBONY: Which of the other police figures that you’ve portrayed in the past have you most identified with?
SH: I’ve really only played a police figure maybe twice before in the past. For me, the identification of a character may be loosely based on relationships, friends I have in the police force or people I know [but] nothing that I latch on to. I don’t have anyone I use or anyone that functions that way. I try to keep it that way to give life to the character, give each character his own way of being. At least I hope I do that.
EBONY: You’ve definitely portrayed authority figures, such as an FBI agent or a Lieutenant, several times in the past though. Would you say that’s a trend in your career?
SH: Honestly, I think that’s the way people cast me. Earlier in my career I was predominantly playing bad guys. Since “The Practice” they’ve given me more of those types of [good guy] roles and let me be a part of a show in that