Hollywood, Black Police Officers, and Stereotyped Roles: Social Implications


Home / Hollywood, Black Police Officers, and Stereotyped Roles: Social Implications

hollywood-racistIn 2001, an African American actor, Denzel Washington, won an Academy award for playing a police officer. The major downside for this accomplishment is that he won the award for playing a corrupt police officer.

To many this is an insignificant and probably an irrelevant fact. To others, however, this is a reoccurring problem.

Many believe that Hollywood reflects reality. We are living in a time where racial lines are becoming more apparent. The true question is this: What responsibility do movie studies have to accurately portray society, given that they’re profiting from any inaccurate portrayals?

African Americans as Police Officers in Media

Currently, Hollywood rewards African Americans for playing roles that make them ether look corrupt or incompetent while playing a police officer – but why? A recent article questioning the value of African Americans as police officers in the entertainment field may provide an answer.

Researcher Franklin Wilson, Ph.D. and Howard Henderson, Ph.D wrote, “The recent box office success of the comedy “Ride Along,” starring Ice Cube and Kevin Hart, and the 2013 cancellation of the television drama “Ironsides,” starring Blair Underwood, represent the most recent example of an established trend.

In their recently released study, “The Criminological Cultivation of African-American Municipal Police Officers: Sambo or Sellout,” Henderson and Wilson reported that African-American city police officers have rarely been depicted as leading characters in theatrically-released films over the first 40 years of the cop film genre.

The issue of calling an African American that chooses to become a police officer and uphold the law a sell-out has impacts on our society – problematic outcomes that are a common issue within the African American Community. Many discuss the negative portrayal of African-American police officers, but they rarely reach a common answer.

Who Can Be A Good Police Officer?

When the movie industry portrays African Americans as less-than-upstanding police officers, they continue to provide the motivation for society in general to believe that African Americans are somehow inferior to their counterparts of other races.

Franklin Wilson, Ph.D. and Howard Henderson, Ph.D wrote, “Given the racially-charged nature of this past year, with instances like the Paula Deen case, the Trayvon Martin verdict, the recent ‘Loud Music Case’ of Michael Dunn, among others along with the profit-driven nature of entertainment media, I fear the pattern we have discovered may not be a matter of negligence on the part of Hollywood.

Wilson, an assistant professor of criminal justice who led the research suggests, “Instead, it may be a reflection that many United States citizens are not ready to accept an African-American in a serious authoritative role.”

This poor representation of African Americans as honest and effective police officers affect citizens – potentially resulting in people seeing an African American officer as more incompetent, which places the officer in more uncomfortable position. When the police officer is an African American trying to deescalate a situation, surrounded by people who view the officer as the funny comedian, there can be serious consequences.

Does Hollywood's version of reality affect the way our society views one another? Image by Minkelhof

Does Hollywood’s version of reality affect the way our society views one another? Image by Minkelhof

Why Research Race and Authority in the United States?

Decoded Science asked the researchers why they became interested in this topic. Dr. Wilson responded, “It had often bothered us that few researchers had systematically dissected large blocks of media portrayals in a manner that could be compared to the criminological literature regarding real world crime and criminal justice practitioner issues.

So given that city police officers make up the largest percentage of law enforcement officers in the United States, that city law enforcement officers are those the general public is most likely to come in contact with, and that law enforcement is the part of the criminal justice system that is the most represented in film and television, we decided to focus on city police officer depictions. 

The study was an exploratory analysis of the most serious, those most likely to be perceived as realistic, of cop films between 1971 and 2011. Different from previous studies, we based our variables in the research regarding real-world police officers and coupled that with qualitative observations. So we sought to determine the quantity and the quality of depictions of African American police officers.”

More Strong Leading Roles for African-Americans

Could linking more African Americans to police officers in strong leading roles help Is it possible that the African American community needs to create and produce their own movies in order to link African Americans to police officers in strong leading roles -such as those Tyler Perry and T.D Jake have produced?

Dr. Henderson responded, “Booker T. Washington, in his Atlanta exposition on September 18, 1895, held that Blacks in America needed to, “throw down your buckets where you are.” In effect he was appealing to the Black masses to use our own resources to alleviate our socio-economic and political struggles by becoming proficient in the likes of agriculture, mechanics, commerce, and domestic service.

In effect, he was arguing that as long as we appealed to Whites for equality we were at their mercy. As a result, we would be unable to exercise our own freedoms at the behest of our own abilities. What you will notice is that other minority groups refuse to partition the American government as vehemently as Blacks for equality. To the contrary, they expend their energies in improving their cultural lot.

There are those who argue that the Black experience in America is not comparable to any other and as a result, demand alternative approaches. In reality, as espoused earlier by Booker T. Washington and other, more contemporarily conservative Blacks, if we are ever going to be portrayed equally, it will have to be us who produce those outlets.

Fair Treatment For All

The overall outcome of a lack of fair treatment for African Americans – evidenced by a lack of leading movie roles as upstanding police officers, may lead to many issues within society.

  • African Americans may have a negative view of becoming a police officer, and therefore not aspire to help protect their own community.
  • The community may believe that those who do become police officer will ether only want to arrest them or destroy their community.
  • The community also may feel the officer has turned his or her back on the African American community – i/e the “Sell Out” theory.
  • Society will continue to view African American police officers as incompetent or corrupt, and will assume that the officers do not respect the Police Oath they took.

Race and Hollywood

So what did the research show? According to the press release, there has been a “… 40-year domination of white officer depictions and the apparent requirement of a white costar to justify an African-American in a leading role, the study revealed that 52 percent of African-American officer depictions portrayed the officer serving as comedic entertainment.  White officer comedic portrayals resulted in only 17 percent, which is reduced to only 3 percent if excluding films where the white officer is teamed with a minority officer or minority civilian.”

It’s Just a Movie… Right?

It’s easy to dismiss movies as simple entertainment. However, if we don’t respect the information that’s provided from all areas of research, we will continue to repeat the same actions within society. Clearly, our nation still has some growing up to do when it comes to the divide between the races – and movies illustrate the state of our relationship on the big screen. 

Think about the cliché of art imitating life. Consider the first time you met someone from another race, culture, or religion. Is it possible that the Hollywood portrayals of people that looked like him affected the way you viewed him before you got to know him?

By the same token, if you are approached by an African American police officer, your first thought may be a movie… in which someone like Denzel Washington was extremely convincing as a corrupt cop. What, then, would be your first thought?

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