Comedic Relief Only: Does Hollywood Paint Black Cops In A Less Than Flattering Light?

April 3, 2014  |  

Here’s a semi-serious thought: Why are the majority of black cop portrayals in film and television always silly guys?

You hadn’t noticed it before, you say? Well, neither did I. But after reading about this research from Sam Houston University (in Texas), compiled by associate professor of criminal justice, Howard Henderson, and Franklin T. Wilson of Indiana State University, I am willing to give the matter some consideration. And here is why:

According to the criminology researchers, black cops have rarely been featured as leading characters in theatrically released films in the 40-year history of the cop-film genre. When depicted, African-Americans are overwhelmingly portrayed as comedic entertainment while white officers are not.

Their findings are written in a joint study entitled,”The Criminological Cultivation of African-American Municipal Police Officers: Sambo or Sellout,” which is in the March issue of the journal of the American Society of Criminology. Currently, the report is not available for the general public (a subscription is required), but according to a release on the Sam Houston University website, both researchers have concluded that the less than serious portrayals of black police officers on television may have a role in how real life black officers are perceived by the community at large.

The study focused on 112 theatrically released cop films, which were released after 1971 (the report argues that the modern cop film genre started with Dirty Harry). According to their findings, 89 percent of the films featured white policemen in the leading roles while only 19 percent were black (three percent were “others”). Likewise, of the 19 percent featuring black officers in leading roles, 52 percent of those films had the black cop partnered with another cop (i.e. the buddy comedy/drama). And according to the researchers, all but one of those buddy cop films had white partners.

Even more interesting, the press release for the study says that in the majority of black and white cop pairings, the white cop acts as the more serious, straightforward guy while the black cop acts more in the role of comedic relief. As noted by one of the researchers in the project:

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.”

According to the release, there is some other interesting stuff in the report about television representations of black cops, which are very rare, and in most cases, do not last beyond a single season. The researcher also noted:

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.”

I have to say that until reading this report, I hadn’t really given the genre much thought outside of the buddy-cop theme, which has been the dominant narrative as of late in theatrically-released feature films. However, now that it has been mentioned and I have given it somewhat serious thought, it does often seem that white officers are given the smart or more masculine role in crime films while black men are reduced down to childlike figures, in need of guardianship and guidance. Heck, even in instances where one cop is an “other” (not black or white), if a black guy is in the film, it’s guaranteed that he is goofing off around the seriousness of the story until it is time for him to deliver a punchline or catchphrase. And yes, I am talking about Rush Hour. All of them.

I know that for some, this may seem like a silly topic. However, I feel that this research shows just how ingrained certain stereotyping around black folks is in our society; and more importantly, how that constant stereotyping can be used to undermine authority and even affect how a person (or person in a profession) perceives themselves. Personally speaking, every black cop I have known (including the couple I have in my own family) have been pretty serious about their work. And if we are to believe KRS-One, it is the “Black Cop,” who we might want to watch out for in terms of police brutality and misconduct. I don’t know if what is presented on screen has a direct effect on how we, the general public, feel about them. I actually think that comes from day-to-day interaction. However, respectability politics are real. And I do wonder if how black cops are presented on television and in film puts more pressure on them not to be the bumbling, wise-cracking, hip-hop-lyric reciting gumshoe, who can’t hold a gun straight?

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