’61st Street’s’ Courtney B. Vance and Tosin Cole Get Real About the Police and the Criminal Justice System

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Image: George Burns/AMC.

61st Street, executive produced by Michael B. Jordan and currently streaming on AMC, AMC+, and ALLBLK, is a gritty drama starring Courtney B. Vance and Aunjanue Ellis that offers a scathing critique on how unfairly both the police and the criminal justice system treat Black people. Set in Chicago, the series follows attorney Franklin Roberts who should be enjoying his retirement but is instead fighting to keep neighborhood kid and local track star Moses Johnson, who is accused of killing a Chicago policeman, from trading in college for prison. It’s a series Vance tells EBONY shows “why Black lives don’t matter.” 

“We are just trying to bring attention to that,” he explains further. “These incidents happen over and over again—the Rodney Kings, the Trayvons, the George Floyds. . . . And if you don’t talk about it, it’s going to keep happening again and again, and blow up until something bigger than George Floydhappens.”

There’s an unflinching realness about police interaction with Black people in 61st Street that is missing from so many other dramas focusing on law enforcement and legal system. For example, when Johnson is first accused of killing a cop and on the run, the Chicago police swarm his neighborhood with no regard to whose rights they violate. For those who have had cordial police interactions, these tense and aggressive actions will seem exaggerated. During the Television Critics Association press tour last year, 61st Street co-showrunner and executive producer J. David Shanks, who is both a Chicago native and former Chicago police officer, insisted that they are not. 

“It’s our sincerest hope that when people watch it, they won’t say, ‘Oh no, that would never happen’ or ‘The police would never do that.’ This is a reality. This is a reality that a lot of people in our community face and deal with every day in their interactions with the police,” he said.

To play Moses, British actor Tosin Cole tells EBONY that he soaked in the city as well as leaned on family, friends and even the set’s crew. “The city itself is full of culture and full of strong communities so you’re just immersed in it,” he shares. “I got family in Chicago. I have cousins in Chicago. I got a barber in Chicago . . . people who are rich in information and rich in the essence and the soul of Chicago so it’s just pouring out into you.”

Conveying the depths of emotions a young man faces in prison, he admits, was more difficult. “There are other systems, gang systems and criminal organizations [in there that you’re] just trying to navigate” he explains. “I think it’s the most vulnerable feeling. You can’t prep for that. You just play it as true as you can.”

Cole’s character Moses has a rock in his mother Norma (played by Adrene Ward-Hammond), who represents so many single mothers doing their best in life to keep their children on the right path. As she struggles to get her son justice while also raising his younger brother, the depths of police corruption, including their complex dealings with street gangs, are also exposed. Franklin Robert’s wife Martha, played by Aunjanue Ellis who was also Vance’s wife in Lovecraft Country, runs for office on the often-unspoken truth among politicians that the system is broken and targets Black people. It’s a position Ellis told EBONY back in March that is difficult for Martha because “she’s someone who’s way out of the system that’s running to be in the system and so she’s conflicted by that.” 

The series also shows that life doesn’t stop just because there is a crisis. In fact, the crisis amplifies other problems and that’s the case for Franklin and his wife. His decision to take Moses’ case breaks his promise to Martha to retire, and that decision impacts the care of their autistic son David, Martha’s campaign and Franklin’s health. But Franklin feels he cannot turn his back on Moses. “There comes a time in life where you have to make decisions about what you feel is the right thing to do,” Vance explains.

“He knows the system is the system, but he’s made the decision that ‘not today, not with that young man,’” Vance continues. “He’s saying to his wife, to his family, ‘I love you, but this is bigger than us. And I must stand for this even if it may cost me.’ And it does cost him everything.”

Cole, who next stars in the House Party remake, adds that, for Moses, “everything he’s tried so hard to be and achieve has been taken away. That’s not just Moses’ story; it’s many young, Black people’s stories that have had their futures taken away.”

Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.

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