Police brutality. The one constant human rights violation in America.
Executive-produced by Michael B. Jordan, the new AMC miniseries “61st Street” is a legal drama focusing on the rampant and racially-motivated police savagery that takes place on Chicago’s South side.
Courtney B. Vance stars as veteran public defender Franklin Roberts, mere days from retirement (and suffering from cancer), the lawyer who becomes involved in the volatile case of a young Black college-bound athlete accused of killing a white Chicago police detective.
For the importance of its subject matter and its good intentions, this eight-episode series has pluses and minuses in equal measure.
The piece gives voice to the residents in that area of Chicago and shows the effects of over-policing and racial profiling and how it puts an entire community on edge everytime they step outside the safety of their homes.
Moses Johnson (Tosin Cole) is a young and talented Black male whose skills have made him a local track star and assured him a spot at a good college.
After an unsuccessful drug bust, Moses is charged with the accidental death of a police officer which brings his and Franklin’s life together.
The story is guided by the parallels between these two men. Sadly, it is in the examination of everyone besides Moses and Franklin where the series suffers.
The script, while honest and frank for its treatment of corruption in Chicago, is more concerned with dramatic grandstanding and speeches meant to give the main actors something to chew on while supporting characters are never allowed to move beyond their dramatic representations.
The two supporting roles that do find weight in the series are Roberts’ wife, Martha, and Lt. Brannigan.
Aunjanue Ellis is Martha, a woman currently running for Alderman who promises to take on brutality at the hands of the police department. Ellis gives the performance of the series, making Martha powerfully determined with a driven soul and an open heart.
Holt McCallany (a good actor continually searching for the right role) is Lt. Brannigan, an opportunistic bigot who wants to use this killing to erase the current wave of anti-police sentiment that has swept the country. The actor is very good and represents the devious way of thinking regarding how to spin certain tragedies and keep negative police coverage at bay. McCallany keeps his performance strong, even when the script attempts to turn him into a stereotype.
Creator Peter Moffat succeeds at showing how the Black community is always in a no-win situation against the police, the series doesn’t shy away from presenting the deceitful tactics (planting evidence, illegal surveillance, etc.) that some crooked police officers resort to in an effort to manufacture a false justice and railroad people of color into prison.
The most effective examination is the strategy of turning family members against one another.
Andrene Ward-Hammond and Bentley Green play Moses’s mother and brother, respectively. It is devastating to watch the police department use the racial and economic hardships as a tool to manipulate the family, causing further heartbreak. It is here where Moffat’s series finds its soul.
The rest of the characters both big and small are, unfortunately, less than engaging and the interest level of the six-episode arc too often flails around, searching for powerful moments.
The story of the slain officer’s partner Officer Logan (Mark O’Brian) conducting his own off-the-book investigation goes nowhere.
The visual structure of the back and forth between Moses in the prison and Roberts dealing with his home life (he and Martha have an autistic son) gives good balance between the two men and their intersecting lives; each one representing different levels of struggle for the African American communities.
Vance predictably brings gravitas to the role, the actor is excellent here despite the grandstanding dialogue he is given, but it is Tosin Cole who, with giving a nuanced turn in the series, is the most convincing.
Moffat and his head writer Sarah Beckett (along with a team of staff writers) were likely full of good intentions but their execution appears too obvious. Much of the dialogue is mere exposition that spoon-feeds the drama and many of the revelations and dramatic situations fail to have the impact they desire.
With all of the complexities and motifs that could have been examined over the eight episodes but were missed “61st St.” looks like it falls under the category of “well-acted failure.”
Series is currently airing on AMC