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To Observe and Project

By Armond White

"When Marge first told me she was going to the police academy, I thought it was going to be fun and exciting. You know, like that movie Spaceballs. Instead, it's been painful and disturbing. You know, like that movie Police Academy."
-Homer Simpson

There has never been a popular American movie about why someone becomes a cop - that is, about the egotism and politics that influence such a decision. Yet even after the killings of Patrick Doresmonds, Amadou Diallo and the rape of Abner Louima, police-worship in movies and in the general media persists. It's a special American cultural fetish.

Denials of the continuing abuse of police power as just 'an aberration' suggest that folks' political perspectives are a deeply intertwined mix of misrepresented real life crises and social fantasy. Projecting audience's unconscious political whims on to official authority figures has been part of movie-watching tradition since westerns. Our politically evasive cop movies (and TV shows) mutated from earlier, more socially aware crime and gangster genres. Modern cop movies, though, don't simply justify police authority, they secrete the anxieties of a diverse and divided nation. Dominant social groups seek a sustained illusion of orderliness to bolster their confidence. This same need persists in Hollywood and Harlem where other, subjugated groups find themselves attracted to displays of force they lack yet still envy.

The American movies clearest about police beat-down reality were those 1950's films dramatizing the thin line between criminal and law-enforcement careers - films usually about policemen hanging by the crumbling edge of their neuroses, behaving as monstrously as gangsters. But such honesty about human tendencies toward degradation (on view in the complex characterizations of On Dangerous Ground, The Big Heat and Detective Story) was lost during the social turmoil of the Vietnam War and the late years of the Civil Rights Movement. Americans needing to assuage their anxieties about their social place (or more personal insecurities) did so through Hollywood images and stories that intensified their desire for protection and their wish to command. Cop movies were never just about the fun of chase-capture-justice scenarios.

Recall the classic confrontation in Dirty Harry (1971) - Clint Eastwood's 'This is a 44 Magnum pistol. It can take your head clean off' speech. It's a close-up of Eastwood's blue-eyed squint matched to a grimacing, wounded Albert Popwell. Towering over the supine crook, Harry taunts him, pointing a bodacious gun: Fetishized Weapon/Stigmatized Target. White Law-bringer/Black Malefactor. Nerve to Gutlessness. Civilization to Anarchy. The coup de grace in this quintessential 70's duet was the perp's plea, 'I got to know!' said without anger and resentment. In that period of George Jackson's killing and Angela Davis's flight from the FBI, Popwell had no reason to ask whether Eastwood's gun was loaded. The now-forgotten black character actor's question hit home; his line felt real and reverberates through other cop movie standoffs, because it inquired about power - and its use.


Popwell's question was taken up - and exemplified - by rapper Ice-T's chosen career as a cop beginning with the 1990 New Jack City, play-acting municipal puissance (just prior to his 'Cop-Killer' catastrophe). Recently, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Danny Glover, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence and both Chris Tucker and Chris Rock have all played cop heroes - black actors crossing the blue line, blurring the real life antagonism felt between America's largely white police departments and communities of color. These escapists from the nightmare of racial profiling reach toward a self-hating Hollywood dream (none of them play characters based on a figure like Eric Adams of the gadfly guild 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement). Their goals are not progressive but typical of All-American cop-worship. And ticket buyers to Hollywood's Friday night specials are unable to resist the superficial excitement of these killer cop flicks. Worse, they're discouraged from gaining a perspective that might counteract contemporary delusions about the genre's implicit politics. Today's film-goers urgently need to know more about how the big screen's Patrolman's Benevolent Artists have tracked changes in urban history.

After the 60's riots, following on from political exhaustion and hopelessness, geographic white flight translated into silver screen fright. Hollywood split 70's cop movie mythology in two: the law-and-order urban westerns Dirty Harry, The French Connection and the extreme-empathy-verging-on-defensiveness of the Joseph Wambaugh entries, The New Centurions and The Onion Field (though Robert Aldrich's underrated version of The Choirboys was such a coruscating inside-job it altogether subverted Wambaugh's book of cheers). Sidney Lumet's 1973 Serpico - based on former cop Frank Serpico's whistle-blowing revelations before the Knapp Commission, provoked reformist sentiments, giving a black eye to the blue serge profession. But Serpico - with its entertaining shaggy-dog hero - offered a far less critical vision of cops than The Choirboys. (Serpico's star Al Pacino was much more inspiring later when he rode the zeitgeist chanting 'Attica! Attica!' in Dog Day Afternoon.) Serpico's muckraking myth was effectively replaced by Walking Tall, the reactionary film-biography of Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser (augmented by the citizens's arrest daydream of Charles Bronson in Death Wish). Vigilante fervor superseded concern for legal 'niceties,' proving America's ambivalence about cops was so great - and so widespread - that iron-fist policing thereafter became the cop-movie norm. Almost any rugged white male actor could try his hand at controlling the urban jungle in the 70's. Ben Johnson in Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express, Charlton Heston in the futuristic Soylent Green, Robert Duvall in Badge 373, Walter Matthau in The Laughing Policeman, John Wayne in McQ, Gene Hackman in the French Connection series. Even Spielberg's Jaws, featuring The French Connection and Seven-Ups' Roy Scheider as a cop on the water, showed how police heroes were all the rage in every out-of-control situation.

70's cop movies tended to be adamantly anti-urban. Their versions of old fashioned heroism looked back from post-Watts L.A. and post-Lindsay New York to the simplistic moral codes of old western serials. And not coincidentally, these urban-western cop movies were also, implicitly, anti-black. They anticipated the violent cop/citizen, white/black antagonism that would erupt in the '90's. (The Rodney King, Mark Fuhrman and Doresmonds-Diallo-Louima outrages can be seen as a dire fulfillment of Dirty Harry's tease - the callous flaunting of authority and undisguised contempt.) Identifying with Nixonian law-and-order, 70's filmmakers refashioned a genre so that it betrayed their own paranoia and race/class allegiances. They erected a blue screen of paramilitary idolatry - paenes to authority still evident in movies from Colors and Diehard to Speed and One Good Cop with commendations for Patrolman Bruce Willis, Detective Sylvester Stallone, Officer Arnold Schwartzenegger. Each of these 90's films reveal the Hollywood institution acting as a publicist for police brutality and the political status quo. Cop movies featuring black lead actors like Beverly Hills Cop, Seven, Kiss The Girls, The Bone Collector further blur real oppositions between castes, classes and political points of view by keeping viewers locked on the peace-keeper's perspective. To observe and project - from the behind the gun. These films reduce the various disasters resulting from America's inequities - and the social conditions that often lead to crime - to mere matters of discipline and punishment, law-and-order.


Few filmmakers who practice cop-worship understand the full human, political complexity of their subject. Blind to the way political power is gained, they ignore how authority congratulates itself. Not even Sidney Lumet's celebrated cop quartet (Serpico, Prince of the City, Q&A, Night Falls on Manhattan) conveyed how different economic and ethnic circumstances affect perceptions of the police and cops' own views of 'others.' Spike Lee's Clockers never dramatized the politicizing ghetto experience of recognizing police who live in outlying areas as members of an occupying army. Routine harassment of non-white people is routinely passed over as a subject. There can be rogue cops, but there's never clarity about a rogue system.

The pro-police tradition prevails over films that focus on criminals in order to illuminate the larger society's failings. Cop movies that focus on idealized police figures uphold racial and class hegemony. Pandering to fear of crime as fear of the other, the makers of cop movies seem as devious as a 'straight-shooting' big city mayor who stays adamant about America's divisive street-level power positions. Insidious TV cop shows like Hill Street Blues, Barry Levinson's Homicide, NYPD Blue promote this pseudo-civic propaganda, beaming fractious cultural/political tumult into American homes (as did the pathetic New York Undercover which tried proselytizing police worship through hiphop). For some viewers, NYPD Blue's cozy toleration of the specter of a belligerent white cop is too offensive; it's like making a Nazi commandant Sheriff of Mayberry. What might ordinarily seem a fascistic normalization of police statism is camouflaged by the quasi-documentary style of such tv series as Cops and America's Most Wanted, both positing a specious realism (not to be confused with a subtle, complicated, always-timely show like Law and Order).


Cop domestication reached its peak in the 1988 New York-set Someone to Watch Over Me (the story of a cop falling in love with a socialite) where police work was sentimentalized as a profession prone to class deceptions and heartbreak. Its Brief Encounter formula perfected a deep, under-scrutinized social romanticism. It glossed over the ethnic tension even in relatively innocuous forms of police and criminal-justice misconduct. This is how some cop movies - especially New York ones - not only muddle American's race-bound recalcitrance but contrive to turn it into a celebration of (white) ethnic working class solidarity. Fort Apache: The Bronx starring Paul Newman was an exception, but David Mamet's Homicide conformed to heinous conventions; it was populated with unreasonably belligerent or criminal blacks, hostile Irish and Italians and guilt-inducing Jews (a dramatic conceit that has warped into the ethnic caricatures of the The Sopranos). Homicide misrepresented urban America's moral conflicts and ended up heroicizing modern cop racism - the essence of Hollywood's lazy tendency to believe in police work as the answer to America's great ethnic/racial crisis.

The most acclaimed cop movie of recent years, Curtis Hanson's 1997 L.A. Confidential did little more than mix tabloid salaciousness with contemporary cynicism. But it was enough to outgun Lee Tamahori's similarly 50's infatuated Mulholland Falls. Crazily the social failings of whites became the core of both films' decadent nostalgia. L.A. Confidential's unfazed treatment of the L.A.P.D's racism wouldn't shock anyone familiar with the Chicano perspective of Zoot Suit and Hanson's nihilist ending was less a tragic moral response than a political capitulation. These movies did not examine how power is parceled out unequally - with extreme prejudice - in our multiracial society. They weren't critiques of depraved social structures; they saluted corruption. LA. Confidential's Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce were more glamorous versions of Jack Nicholson's snarling military man in A Few Good Men who warned 'You need men like me!'

All this may have worked undercover in the Diallo verdict: an audience's (a jury's) inability to see past the public romance with cop power. Hollywood movies surely contribute to some people's personal indifference to reports of police brutality and corruption. But when rap artists Mos Def and Talib Kweli introduced their anti-police brutality music video project Hip Hop For Respect, they advised 'police brutality is not a black problem but a human problem.' Rappers who have not sold out the Ice-T way evince a strong sense of what's gone wrong in Hollywood depictions of cops. Lately, the Diallo-Doresmonds-Louima incidents have tainted the ghetto enjoyment of cop machismo. Listen to 'The Men in Blue' (on Prince Paul's CD A Prince Among Thieves); it may not be Everlast's best rap track - though it's pretty good - but it's certainly his bravest. As 'Officer O'Malley,' he breaches the code of silence that keeps many from admitting what they know of white perfidy - especially among those with official prerogatives. 'It's the bad lieutenant running up in your tenement,' he raps, referencing one of those wild depictions of cops (in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant) that often appeal to rappers. But, as Everlast warns, 'The police department/It's like a crew/It does whatever it wants to do.' This white artist's bold renunciation is reminiscent of Aldrich's dissection of the police rites of masculinity and ethnicity in the Choirboys. It's a reminder that cop-hagiography must end. We need to cultivate artistic alternatives to this debased genre and encourage actual audience protest. Or dismiss the form altogether. Give Shaft the shaft.


The closest I've seen to an honest movie about what compels a person to become a cop - and, likely, a state-sponsored bully - is Italian Director Gianni Amelio's Stolen Children . When a young officer is asked why he joined the force, he answers 'because my father was one, and my brother.' Such customs are in force in America too. But our movies shrink from exposing the nepotism and ethnic/racial sense of entitlement that shapes our police forces. Instead, family tradition takes pride of place in most cop moves. No one seems to care how it is reproduced in the patriarchal structures of police departments. Amelio's point was powerful because his hero's political naivete stung. Hollywood's sick-joke apologias - like Copland and Q&A - only confuse the issue by luxuriating in cop crisis. It's as if white filmmakers, serving the status quo, are afraid to look their horses of protection in the mouth. Or maybe they just lack the feel for race and class that distinguishes French filmmaker Maurice Pialat's Police - a Gerard Depardieu vehicle - and Andre TŽchinŽ's Les Voleurs which features Daniel Auteuil in the role of a conflicted cop.

Among American films, only Charles Burnett's The Glass Shield (1995) is similarly inquiring. Burnett took on the true story of rookie cop Johnny Johnson's perilous initiation into a corrupt Southern California police fraternity -- a deluded black man in an all-white clan. Johnson's moral awakening came when he discovered the dread racist motives underlying police procedure and clandestine comradeship. Burnett deliberately experimented with paranoia-inducing noir stylistics to convey the absurdist quality of Johnson's daily trials. There were no distracting car crashes or shoot-outs (such as those that undermined Kathryn Bigelow's feminist cop screed Blue Steel), but Burnett's usual open-ended humanism got stifled by the film's claustral tone. Even so brave a cop movie as The Glass Shield felt trapped on the edge of hysteria - like America's moviegoing polity condemned to look for a hero in the morass.


Armond White is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture that Shook the World and Rebel for the Hell of It: The Life of Tupac Shakur.

From August, 2000