The country’s ongoing discussions about the deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of police inspired a number of pop culture moments in 2016, from Beyoncé’s fiery performance at the Super Bowl to Jesse Williams’s impassioned speech at the BET Awards. Scripted TV shows also drew inspiration from the Black Lives Matter era — a theme that emerged in 2015 with episodes of “Scandal,” “The Carmichael Show” and “Law and Order: SVU.”
This year, amid the nation’s increasingly visible racial divide, even historical dramas — such as WGN America’s “Underground” and History’s ambitious “Roots” remake — evoked the discussion. But when it came to tackling police violence, certain shows had a more effective approach than others. We took a look at a few of the most prominent examples:
Donald Glover’s FX dramedy approached the issue of police violence in its typically subtle way. In the season finale, Earn (Glover), along with his cousin Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles and their friend Darius, witness the police fatally shoot a Latino suspect. Because they’re in the vicinity, the men are ordered to step out of the car and place their hands on top of the vehicle as an officer inspects the interior as “a safety precaution.”
When the suspect, an Uber driver who happens to be wearing the jacket Earn left in his car, is declared dead, the men look aghast. “Did ya’ll really need all them bullets, man?” Paper Boi asks. Earn implores an officer to check the pockets of his bullet-riddled jacket as SWAT team officers train their guns on onlookers, including the driver’s sobbing family.
Driving away from the scene, the men say little about the ordeal aside from nervous small talk. “That whole thing was pretty crazy,” Paper Boi says. “And cool,” adds Darius, acknowledging what many other shows have not: Relationships between law enforcement and communities of color historically have been fraught, which is why the men are desensitized to it.
An earlier episode placed Paper Boi on a fictional news panel show with parody commercials to break up the show’s segments. One Trix spoof features a police officer violently arresting a wolf for trying to steal sugary cereal from three children. “I could be eating these kids, but I’m out here eating cereal,” the wolf tells the officer. The kids are horrified — one pulls out a cellphone and starts recording the encounter.
A critically acclaimed episode of the ABC family comedy found the multigenerational Johnson family struggling to explain a police brutality incident to the youngest members. The episode was based on a real-life conversation creator Kenya Barris had with his son, who wanted to know why people were protesting after a Ferguson, Mo., grand jury declined to indict the officer who fatally shot an unarmed 18-year-old black man. The family has an honest, emotional conversation that gives nuance to issues that many people see as clear-cut. Barris clarified that “Hope” was “not a Black Lives Matter episode.” Rather, he said, its goal was to capture the challenge of talking to young children about difficult subjects.
The Black Lives Matter movement was a recurring theme in Ava DuVernay’s strong TV debut about three siblings who take over their family’s sprawling Louisiana sugar cane farm. “Queen Sugar” focuses on many of the ways black people are targeted by the criminal justice system — issues for which DuVernay provided historical context in her Netflix documentary “13th.” The most glaring example in “Queen Sugar” is told through Nova, a journalist and activist, who writes an expose about black minors being pressured to take plea deals that send them to adult prisons. One such teenager ends up being severely beaten while waiting for a public defender to help him appeal. The ordeal causes issues between Nova and her boyfriend, a white police officer whose career is part of his family’s legacy.
Nova’s character arc is illuminating, but the essence of this rich and intimate show is the value of black lives. “I’m hoping to dismantle the public notion — for folks outside of the community — of what Black Lives Matter means,” the “Selma” director told the Hollywood Reporter ahead of the show’s September premiere. “It’s really about saying that black lives matter, that humanity is the same when you go inside people’s homes.”
‘Orange Is the New Black’
The Netflix dramedy took a dark turn during its impressive fourth season when increased racial tension at an overcrowded Litchfield culminated in a white correctional officer killing a major character, who had done nothing other than try to help a disturbed fellow inmate. The death was controversial among fans of the show, but “Orange Is the New Black” dealt with the story line realistically — showing the for-profit prison’s efforts to vilify the victim. “They didn’t even say her name,” one inmate angrily says after overhearing the news conference. The show also revealed that the inmate had been in prison for a minor drug charge, alluding to troubling racial disparities within the criminal justice system.
After a strong first season that captured the pitfalls of reality television through a feminist lens, the Lifetime show sought — and failed — to make a statement about race relations. “Everlasting,” the fictional reality show at the center of “UnREAL,” hired its first black bachelor, Darius. One episode found the show’s producers calling the cops on Darius and his manager, also a black man, while the two were out for a joy ride with a few contestants in the network’s Bentley. Darius’s manager was shot by a police officer, but the show devoted more time to exploring the shooting’s effect on Rachel, the white producer who had falsely reported the Bentley stolen.
The Fox drama about a music mogul and his family was infused with sly social commentary last season. But the show took a more deliberate approach this year when Andre, one of three heirs to the Lyon family fortune, was brutally arrested for trespassing outside of his own home. Andre is indignant about the way he is treated, but urges his angry family to let him seek justice through the court. Andre is left stunned when the officer goes unpunished, but “Empire” swaps a potentially powerful message about bias in law enforcement for a hate-filled monologue from the family patriarch saying Andre and his privileged brothers “don’t know they’re black” and that’s why Andre is surprised.