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 way. I, personally, feel like I can play anything. I just think it’s the perception, the way people feel about me, and the way they want me as part of a show. Like I said, in the first part of my career, I was predominantly [cast] on wrong side of law. I guess now I’m on the right side.
EBONY: From the NYPD to LAPD and every department in between, the Black American community has a very complex history with police and officers of the law. As a Black actor and a Black male does this history effect and impact how you approach these roles? If so how?
SH: I think being a Black male impacts all of the roles I take and all the roles I’m a part of. The history that Black Americans have had with the police force, of course it has a bearing and a place. But I must add that if a character isn’t specifically required to embark upon that, then there’s no place for it. Right now, there’s no reason for my character in “Awake” to have to deal with that. He’s dealing with something totally different.
Clearly [race] has a place, though. We have taken high standing roles in the police force. There’s the feeling that you don’t really want them around unless there’s trouble or you need to be saved, and that’s a difficult position to be in.
EBONY: How do you prepare for each of your authority figure roles? Do you speak to real cops? Watch old cop shows?
SH: No, I do none of that. I take what I have to do in the moment, and then I do it. I don’t study in that fashion for characters. However, when I played the role of Sonny Liston, I did a lot of research because he’s a real person, a real being with multiple motives and that sort of the thing. I do speak to police officers about technicalities and we have one on set. They show us how you draw your gun, holding, shooting that sort of thing. But as far as being the character, no there isn’t too much consultation.The requirement is knowing the work I have to do and performing it.
EBONY: Who are some of your favorite black cop characters?
SH: I don’t actually have a favorite black cop character. There are black actors who I respect that have really performed well, but I can’t recall too many who have done just that [role.] Actually, Sidney Poitier playing Mr. Tibbs would be one. That role has a priceless history and significance, specifically because of the times. Clearly his performance of the character was also great. Morgan Freeman in “Seven,” also. There really aren’t too many African-American characters that have been police officers that I’ve really taken to in terms of my own acting.
EBONY: How would you advise viewers to keep up with the many twists and turns on “Awake?” What’s the best way to keep track of everything?
SH: [Laughs] Watch every week! I would really love that. I think if you watch it, it becomes easier. I’ve been in it for so long, so it’s not very difficult for me. They’ve created different worlds and given them different colors and different partners, it’s not very linear. You bounce back and forth, but it’s a format you get used to as you watch and you get comfortable. You start to figure out which reality is which because as you’re watching you notice, for instance, that Freeman is his partner in this one or because Wilmer is his partner in that one. People won’t necessarily be talking about that as much as the intricacies of what’s going on in show. Hopefully they’ll be talking about how good the show is. You know, we want people to go, “Wow! I didn’t see that coming.” So while we have the two different storylines happening, the show still stays true to that aspect.
EBONY: Can you reveal anything, like a sneak peek, about Det. Freeman in upcoming episodes of “Awake?”
SH: The next episode is actually airing this week. This Thursday, it’s a world with two ‘Kate’s. It’s very interesting because for me, in the world that I’m in, the Kate that I’m with is a drug addict and my partner has had issues with her in the past. The Kate in both worlds is the same person so you can see her as she is very clearly in the two different worlds. Michael's relationship with her and the fact that she was someone once close to his family brings both worlds together, in a sense. My character believes that whoever she was back in the day has nothing to do with her being the addict that she is now. A lot of times, we get emotionally attached to a person and remember them as they were as opposed to how they are. In this particular moment it’s Freeman’s job to remind Michael that he’s dealing with her in the present and not in the past.
EBONY: Would you like to say anything to the EBONY.com readers?
SH: Come watch my show! [Laugh] Turn the show on on Thursday night and watch. Know that there’s somebody there for you in the show. I think that’s important. Not that the show or my character is primarily about that, but it’s a good representation of us and of a good show. I think you can dig it.
NBC's 'Awake' starring Steve Harris airs Thursdays at 10PM/EST
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Patrice Peck is a writer and journalist whose work explores the intersection of race, culture, and identity. Her work lives at www.patricepeck.com.