How Hollywood Has Shaped Our Understanding Of Police

Todd Boyd, a University of Southern California professor who specializes in race and pop culture, discusses the effects of the ubiquitous cop genre.
"Dirty Harry," "Lethal Weapon," "Dragnet," "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Die Hard."
"Dirty Harry," "Lethal Weapon," "Dragnet," "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Die Hard."
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images

After days of impassioned demonstrations across the world, Hollywood’s propensity for valiant police depictions is facing its own reckoning. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of white cops have prompted some writers and executives to rethink their roles in mythologizing American law enforcement. The long-running docuseries “Cops” and its popular cousin “Live P.D.” were both canceled this week, while the creator of “S.W.A.T.” and the showrunner for “Law & Order: SVU” have publicly questioned the genre’s history. The “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” cast reportedly donated $100,000 to the National Bail Fund Network. Even the children’s cartoon “Paw Patrol” got flak.

The degree to which popular culture informs our perceptions of the world may be up for debate, but the ubiquity of entertainment about police is undeniable. Crime series currently comprise more than 60% of prime-time drama programming on the major four networks, and the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s were famous for turning cops into blockbuster heroes.

“Dragnet,” which began as a radio program and became a TV hit in 1951, is to blame for some of this phenomenon. Credited with popularizing the police procedural, Jack Webb, the show’s creator and star, partnered with the Los Angeles Police Department. Webb granted the LAPD script approval in exchange for story ideas and logistical aid. Negative portrayals of officers were scrubbed, creating the good-cop archetype and advancing rosy ideas about systematic policing. Things only grew more one-note from there, with Clint Eastwood emerging as the avatar of the celebrated rogue cop via ’70s films like “Dirty Harry” and “Magnum Force.”

Todd Boyd, a professor of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California, has been writing and thinking about this stuff for years. In light of current events, I asked him to reflect on the history of police in entertainment — something he sees as generational and likely to change amid the Black Lives Matter movement’s amplification. By phone this week, we discussed “Dragnet,” “Dirty Harry,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “The Wire” and more.

To what degree do you think that people’s attitudes about the world — in this case, their attitudes about law enforcement and criminal justice — can be directly informed by the entertainment they consume?

I think there’s a straight line you can draw from the entertainment people consume to police killing unarmed Black men. The image of the threatening, menacing, violent Black thug, Hollywood gave us that image. It’s given that image to us repeatedly for a long period of time.

In so many of these cases involving the cops killing someone, you get a story that I’ve heard over and over again. A police officer will say, “He was reaching for my gun,” which in turn allows them to justify killing someone. Where does that come from? You would have to be a crazy person, if you’re unarmed, to go after an armed person’s gun. It makes no sense. So when you look at Hollywood movies and you see the threatening, Black, menacing thug, he’s like a monster, and I think a lot of people, particularly people who don’t spend much time around Black people, believe that. They believe that Black men have extraordinary physicality. I mean, you see that every Sunday when you watch NFL. That plays into it. [They think] Black men can use that physicality even against people who have been trained and have weapons to deal with such a thing. But that’s false. It’s also based on a very troubling stereotype.

But the police department didn’t create these stereotypes. Hollywood did, going as far back as “The Birth of a Nation,” the film upon which Hollywood is built. The movie is racist propaganda. When you talk about Hollywood and popular culture, it may offer alternatives to these images or it might feed into these images. It kind of depends on what you’re looking at and the context around it. But the point is Hollywood has not been innocent in creating and circulating the images that many people come to believe really exist. And thus, when someone is killed in this manner, it’s not as though you’ve killed another human being, but you’ve killed a monster. It’s a form of dehumanization that transcends history and, I think, directly relates to police killing Black men.

Ben Alexander and Jack Webb in an episode of "Dragnet."
Ben Alexander and Jack Webb in an episode of "Dragnet."
Bettmann via Getty Images

Some of the earliest examples of police in movies are the Keystone Cops from the silent era — the Buster Keaton sensibility, where they’re depicted as bumbling, uncoordinated clowns. Then you fast-forward not too many years and suddenly they are these infinitely heroic blockbuster protagonists. How did we go from one to the other?

Well, when you reference those Buster Keaton films — something I’ve not watched in a very long time, but I’m very familiar with nonetheless — I don’t remember those Keystone Cops going after Black men. Maybe I missed something.

This probably begins in the 1960s. You look at someone like William Parker, the police chief of Los Angeles, [who was] the individual credited with militarizing the LAPD. Parker understood the value of connecting the LAPD with elements of Hollywood. He cooperated with Hollywood, and Hollywood cooperated with him, so you start to get shows like “Dragnet” and “Adam-12.” And, of course, this is a time when you have a lot of unrest in America: the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, as well as the various student movements. There were a lot of white radicals as well, and so people like Richard Nixon, who talked about law and order, saw Black radicals and white radicals as his enemy.

This notion of the cops as this cultural entity that’s going to save the rest of society from these influences really started to change as society changed. It’s in the ’60s and ’70s and subsequently ’80s and ’90s going forward that this idea of the Black criminal is solidified in the conscious of many Americans.

If you go back and look at TV shows like those I’ve referenced, or even the moment when Clint Eastwood transitions from spaghetti Westerns to the Dirty Harry character, you start to get the image of these cops whose job it is to take on criminals that are being represented as having taken over society and the cops are going to take back control. All of these things are historically specific, so you can tie this image of police in popular culture to the politics that follow.

Something that became prominent in the post-“Dragnet” landscape that’s particularly germane to the current moment is the number of cops in movies and television who are celebrated for going rogue and finding their own “solution” to a problem. Audiences tend to cheer for the cop who’s breaking the law to apprehend the suspect. What do you think that says?

If you go back to the ’60s, the time when the Miranda ruling is instituted, this idea that you have to read people their rights — I think, really, from that moment going forward, there’s been this false sense that politicians are tying police officers’ hands behind their back, that they can’t do their job because of politics and bureaucracy. In these representations when you have the rogue cop, it’s as though you have a figure who rejects the bureaucracy, rejects the politics, rejects the things that would prevent him from doing his job and instead decides to go on their own in pursuit of catching what is regarded as the bad guy. And in so doing, people embrace this idea that the end justifies the means: This rogue has to do this, and it’s great that he does it because it’s beneficial to society.

I think there’s a contempt for any effort that might legally hold police officers accountable, so a character who rejects all that in favor of doing whatever it takes is often applauded because they’ve transcended the limitations that have been placed on them by a society that’s always represented as too liberal and soft on crime.

Clint Eastwood taking aim at Albert Popwell in "Dirty Harry."
Clint Eastwood taking aim at Albert Popwell in "Dirty Harry."
Silver Screen Collection via Getty Images

That segues to my next point. Hollywood is thought to be a proverbially liberal industry with progressive social values, but what you’re talking about right now is a pretty conservative idea of authority and the way our society should be governed.

I think the mistake that people make is in equating liberal individuals with a liberal industry. I don’t think Hollywood is liberal at all. I think there are liberal people in Hollywood. Those people are often stars who are quite well-known, and because of their stardom, they have a platform to advocate for the issues that they believe in. But we shouldn’t equate individuals who are liberal with the industry being liberal. I think we will find the industry has never been liberal.

That makes sense. You can point to any number of examples that buck the liberal mythology you’re talking about, like the Hays Code, which for many years censored movies.

Yes. Notice it’s the same industry that’s filming someone like Lena Horne in such a way so that they can edit out her scenes when the film plays in the South so that they don’t offend racist sensibilities. There was a great documentary on two nights ago about the racism Bruce Lee faced in Hollywood back in the ’60s and ’70s. I mean, so many examples. It’s the confusion between the individual and the industry that allows people to make that assumption, but I think if you look at it closely, that’s just not the case.

There’s probably a tendency among white viewers in particular to look at recent popular culture as something that puts Black actors in positions of authority through police roles. They’re portrayed as skilled and successful and admirable. But doing so comes at the expense of the nuances of the person who exists on the other side of that cop’s gun.

If a Black person works within the system to benefit the larger system, then that Black person is accepted and perhaps even praised. It gives the opportunity for people to point to some sense of diversity. Though the institution in question may be far from diverse, we’ve reached a point where showing, say, a Black police officer working within the system and achieving the goals of the institution — is that something that should be applauded? This is one of the issues that I think we need to get away from. Some people do their jobs and they get a pat on the back.

You’re not supposed to be a rogue cop. If you’re a good cop, then you did what you’re getting paid to do. You didn’t get drafted to be a police officer. You chose this, and you’re going to get paid for it. And there are Black people who believe in the objectives of policing, and for whatever reasons, financial or otherwise, this is what they want to do. When George Bush needed someone to sell the Iraq War to the public, who did he call on? He called on Colin Powell. Why? Because Colin Powell had more credibility than he had in that moment. And he used Colin Powell’s credibility, and Colin Powell was later revealed to be lying. Who bore the brunt of that?

There’s nothing unusual about using a Black person to further the ends of a particular institution, even if that institution is not serving the people that this Black person represents. But I think ultimately if you are Black and you are part of the system and you do what you’re supposed to do and the system benefits, you can be a token of diversity that allows people to say, “Look how diverse we are” and pat themselves on the back.

John Ashton, Eddie Murphy and Judge Reinhold in "Beverly Hills Cop."
John Ashton, Eddie Murphy and Judge Reinhold in "Beverly Hills Cop."
CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images

What do you think of something like “Beverly Hills Cop,” which is essentially a fish-out-of-water story about a Black officer investigating crime in a white neighborhood?

I’m from Detroit, and I have lived in Los Angeles for a long time, so the Detroit-to-L.A. connection is something I can certainly identify with Axel Foley. Eddie Murphy did “Beverly Hills Cop” when he was at the top of the world of pop culture. And it was timely and quite funny, but I don’t know that anybody ever took it realistically. The film certainly represents this fish-out-of-water narrative, but it seldom is specifically about race. I mean, Eddie Murphy is Black, and so, of course, in a visible sense it’s obvious. It’s [about] class and culture and Beverly Hills and Detroit. Race is a part of all those things, but that film is seldom overtly about race in spite of the fact that Eddie Murphy’s the star.

Considering it got two sequels and counting, is it a detriment for the movie to be so soft when it comes to tackling race head-on?

We’re talking about something from the mid-1980s, and when you make a movie like “Beverly Hills Cop,” you’re trying to appeal to the largest audience possible. I suggest if that same movie is made five or 10 years later, perhaps it’s a different movie. There weren’t very many Black writers and Black directors working in Hollywood when Eddie Murphy made that film. A few years later, things changed. By the early ’90s, Eddie Murphy’s being directed by the Hudlin brothers [who made “Boomerang” and “House Party”].

When I look at that film, it looks to me like a movie written for a white lead and they picked Eddie Murphy because he was so popular at the time. [Editor’s note: This is true. Sylvester Stallone was originally cast in the role.] But no attention had been paid to how to make that character more realistic based on writing that would deal with his identity. Eddie Murphy was funny, and that movie was big at the time, but it’s not something realistic.

Let’s talk about that period of incremental change in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Do you think the combination of N.W.A, “Do the Right Thing” and the Rodney King riots did anything to reframe the image of police in the popular imagination?

I think yes. This is the dawn of a new generation at that time in the late ’80s. A lot of it’s fueled by hip-hop culture. And this, of course, is the era of the crack epidemic. This is the era when gang culture is getting a lot of attention in the mainstream media. From the very beginning, rappers were talking about conflicts with the police. In the song that is often credited with the beginning of West Coast hip-hop, Ice-T opens it by saying, “6 in the morning, feds at my door.”

All of these things, and “Boyz n the Hood,” influence society. I think there’s a lot of people who maybe ignored these things, but there are others who saw these things and were positively affected by it. One of the reasons we are seeing so many white people in the street now speaking up, finally, for Black people has to do with their connection to Black culture. We now have multiple generations of people who have come into the world when Black culture has been at the center of American culture. That’s not always been the case.

Hip-hop music has been extremely popular for 35 years now. That’s a long time. If you’re somebody who has been born in the last 35 years, what music have you heard? What did you see on television? What did you dance to when you went to a school dance? What are you playing in your car when you’re riding around with your friends? It’s Black music. That wasn’t the case in the ’60s. I hear somebody like Marco Rubio talking about how much he loves Tupac. He’s a conservative Republican senator, but based on the time he grew up, he connected with Tupac. He clearly hadn’t listened to Tupac very well, but that kind of speaks on his age and cultural affinity for people born during a specific time. Black culture is prominent, at least in terms of the people creating it. The people who control it aren’t always Black.

One of the things we’ve seen consistently are people saying some version of “You need to love Black people as much as you love Black culture.” I’ve been saying this for a long time, and I enjoy the fact that when I first started saying it back in the ’90s, people thought I was crazy. I’m like, “The culture is transforming society,” and it was dismissed. Every chance I get now to say, “I tried to tell you. You weren’t paying attention,” I really enjoy that because we could tell back in the ’90s what was happening.

Culture, I think, has done a great job of introducing people to a different point of view. But who controls the culture? Who disseminates the culture? And are you able to make a connection between the culture and the people who created that culture? This is what I think is still lacking at this point.

Mariska Hargitay and Ice-T in an episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
Mariska Hargitay and Ice-T in an episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
NBC via Getty Images

In the past couple of weeks, a number of writers and executives have owned up to perpetuating certain myths about cops. And similarly, some critics have questioned the volume of heroic police content. At least in my small corner of the internet, there seems to be a consensus forming that it may be time to scale this genre back and rethink its reason for being. How do you feel about that? Where does this genre go from here?

Sort of in relation to that, I often think about this moment in the early ’70s when the most popular genre had been Westerns. And subsequently, Westerns start to decline in popularity while gangster movies start to ascend in popularity. All of a sudden, you start to look at the Western and it looks real problematic because it ignored the exploitation of Native Americans and Native American land. It has made the Native Americans into a villain. It made the people who conquered the land of the Native Americans into heroes. The Western is just so incredibly problematic in terms of its racial politics and gender politics.

Gangster movies come to be very popular and offer, in some ways, a response to this notion of American exceptionalism, basically saying there’s this entire underground society in America that’s not based on lofty ideals or anything like that, but instead is just the pure, unadulterated pursuit of capitalism by any means necessary. Gangster films really shine a different light on America, [leading to] “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad.” It’s comedy now.

If you look at that in parallel with what you’re asking, I think we have reached a moment where the cop show and the cop film can’t be the same going forward. It will be inconsistent with society if it is. Maybe the cop show and the cop film will go the way of the Western, or maybe it will incorporate things from the contemporary moment that make it a more realistic representation as opposed to this sort of ideologically driven representation that has been so problematic.

The pipes have burst, so all these people talking about what they’re going to do, we have to wait and see because once the plumbing is repaired, are they going to go back to the way things were, or are they going to stay on that forward path? I guess we’ll find out.

In your mind, are there examples of law enforcement depictions that do strike the right note? Every now and then, we get a “Fruitvale Station” or a “Do the Right Thing.” But we get far more “Die Hards” and “Lethal Weapons.”

The representation of cops in film that I find to be most useful are representations like “Training Day” and “Bad Lieutenant” because I think there’s an honesty in those films about police officers that may not be present in some of these other depictions. I would also add something like “The Wire.” One of the things that I thought was brilliant about “The Wire” was the fact that the drug dealers demonstrated much more humanity than the police officers. The police officers were not the stars of that series.

Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in "Training Day."
Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in "Training Day."
Archive Photos via Getty Images

I believe that audiences are more or less trained by studios and networks to be attracted to certain genres and types of content. Given the ubiquity of police stories, do you think we’ll get to a point where the American public is ready to turn a more cynical cop depiction into the types of hits that “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard” and “Police Academy” were?

I think the issue we keep coming up against is the issue of history. Whatever cultural product we’re discussing, it’s a product of its time. “Lethal Weapon,” “Die Hard,” “Police Academy,” “Dirty Harry,” take your pick. We don’t live in those times anymore, and so the representation needs to be more consistent with the period that we live in in order to continue to be relevant.

Going back to my example about the Western, when I was a kid, Westerns were still popular. I hated them, though. What I realized over time was it was generational. I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to watch a Western. It just seemed so boring and predictable. I think if you’re of a certain age, it’s just, “Why would you watch that? There’s so many other things to watch.” I think it’s going to be hard to represent cops going forward the same way they’ve been represented because I think those representations will be inconsistent with the experience of the audience watching. Whatever happens, you can’t talk about race and policing anymore without having the image of George Floyd, Eric Garner or someone else being killed by a police officer. There’s a lot more of this circulating now, and what I’ve seen are some people who are basically saying, “Look, I’m white, but I don’t want to be associated with that. I don’t want to be held responsible for that. I don’t believe in that.” There’s something about it that’s so just in-your-face that you’re forced to make a decision.

It feels like we’ve hit a critical mass.

And that doesn’t mean that everything in society will change, but it does mean that there is some discomfort with those images that have pushed some people to say, “Look, I can’t allow this to transpire without letting people know that I’m not in favor of this because I’m not comfortable being associated with such racism.” We have people who, as I say, have been nurtured by Black culture. These are the people, I think, in a lot of cases, who have been in the street.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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