Hollywood and the Police: A Deep, Complicated and Now Strained Relationship
The entertainment industry has always had close ties with law enforcement, but with talent calling for a clean break, those bonds are more fraught than ever: "It's just standing up for what we all know is not correct."
In the weeks leading up to June 23, Kendrick Sampson was sleeping at most five hours a night and marching in a Black Lives Matter protest every other day.
At one rally in Los Angeles, he was hit by the police’s rubber bullets multiple times. Undeterred, the actor best known for playing Issa Rae’s love interest on HBO’s Insecure crafted a letter addressed to Hollywood’s power brokers: “We demand that Hollywood divest from police.”
With the help of Thor: Ragnarok‘s Tessa Thompson, he corralled a group of such A-listers as Michael B. Jordan, Viola Davis and Idris Elba to sign the open letter that blamed the entertainment industry and mainstream media for having “contributed to the criminalization of Black people, the misrepresentation of the legal system, and the glorification of police corruption and violence [that] has had dire consequences on Black lives,” and released it June 23.
“It’s not just a statement or a post,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We need people holding these entities accountable. It’s about changing the way Hollywood operates.”
Sampson’s missive wasn’t the only one that week to address the industry’s long-standing relationship with the police. Four days earlier, on Juneteenth, a group of actors and artists including Sterling K. Brown, Gabrielle Union and Lee Daniels called on the industry to “break ties with the police” and demanded that cultural institutions, including studios and theaters, “publicly condemn the institution of police as a violent force that exists to further class divisions and capitalistic exploitation, which harm our communities.”
As protests swept the world over the police killing of George Floyd, a number of entertainment companies tweeted their support of the Black Lives Matter movement, screened social-justice-themed movies for free and made splashy announcements of financial backing. (Sony Music Group and Warner Music Group each launched $100 million funds to support charitable causes related to fighting racism, while J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot pledged $10 million.) At the same time, industry unions began making waves, with the WGA East, a member of the AFL-CIO umbrella, calling for its parent organization to disaffiliate from the International Union of Police Associations, also a member. (WGA West is not part of the AFL-CIO.)
But will Hollywood have the appetite to actually disassociate or divest? THR reached out to the five major studios — Disney, Warner Bros., NBCUniversal, Sony and Paramount — to address the demands. All declined to comment on the record. On background, several pointed to their internal efforts to bolster a diverse staff and external investments in social justice organizations, but none would address their enduring reliance on police-themed content and ties with law enforcement or how they plan to meet this watershed moment.
Police protagonists have long been a staple of movies and TV, stretching back to James Cagney’s righteous FBI agent in 1935’s “G” Men to the ’60s series Dragnet to today’s police procedurals (dubbed “copaganda” by critics). From lucrative franchises like CBS’ CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Paramount’s Beverly Hills Cop (both produced by Jerry Bruckheimer) to prestige content like HBO’s The Wire and Warner Bros.’ The Departed, policing is one of the most ubiquitous professions depicted onscreen. The money generated is hard to ignore. In 2003, Law & Order creator Dick Wolf inked a contract with NBC potentially worth $1.6 billion, described as the richest deal in TV history at the time.
But the bond between the industry and law enforcement runs deeper than onscreen portrayals. Police serve as paid consultants on movies and shows including CBS’ Blue Bloods and Netflix’s Mindhunter. Robert De Niro leans on a stable of NYPD alumni for protection (Glenn Cunningham, a former homicide detective, serves as vp security at the Tribeca Film Center and The Greenwich Hotel) and to inform his performances (retired top spokesman Stephen Davis connected the actor with an international jewel thief in preparation for the heist movie The Score and is credited as a technical adviser on 15 Minutes). LAPD union boss Jamie McBride himself boasts more than a dozen acting credits on IMDb, including CSI. Similarly, the Oscars ceremony employs scores of ex-cops, mostly from LAPD.
Ariana Grande, who marched in a BLM protest in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood in late May, travels with a security team that includes former cops, as does Justin Bieber (their manager, Scooter Braun, organizes their details, says a knowledgeable source). The same is true of Madonna, who joined a police brutality protest in London in early June.
“Most celebrities who use security are using ex-cops, whether they know it or not,” says former NYPD officer Herman Weisberg, whose firm SAGE Intelligence provides protection for a number of high-profile industry figures. “There might be a former [Israeli intelligence force] Mossad agent [leading the team], but that guy hires ex-cops in every city.”
Even left-leaning MSNBC hires ex-cops to escort journalists to Black Lives Matter protests, says a source. The going rate is $75 an hour. One main requirement is they must be licensed to carry a firearm.
Weisberg, who has appeared on true-crime series like 48 Hours and 20/20, says it’s “unfortunate” that a growing number of celebrities are calling on Hollywood to disassociate from police. “I’d die for the person I’m protecting,” he adds. “But the same people who are going on about gun control are the first ones to ask if you’re carrying.”
Police are also a routine presence on film and TV sets shot on location. According to crewmembers who coordinate with law enforcement, current law makes full disassociation nearly impossible.
“It’s absolutely not realistic, because how in the world would we be able to shut down highways?” asks Chris Debiec, a line producer with 30 years of experience who has worked on James Cameron’s underwater documentaries. “How would we be able to shut down roads and streets and large areas? There are government regulations that say if you’re going to shut down a street, you need a representative of the government or of law enforcement to assist with that, because the city is responsible for that area.” (Police typically are paid $45 an hour by a production.)
But one of the high-profile signees of the Juneteenth statement penned by the Black Artists for Freedom collective balks at the idea that the industry’s hands are tied. “The studios are owned by some of the most powerful companies in the world,” says the signee who works in film and TV. “If they want this stuff changed, they have the lobbying arms to do it. Their deferring to ‘it’s the law’ is a cop-out, pun intended.”
That point is echoed by Ava DuVernay, who has been outspoken on the issue of police brutality and signed the Juneteenth letter.
“If I am a director and I am shooting a scene where I’m driving with cameras in the car, do I really have to have cops with guns escorting me through that?” she asks. “These militarized forces have been allowed to invade so many parts of our lives. Folks that live in certain areas may not feel it, but if you are in areas where there are no other resources, the police are a stopgap in our current society for everything. And that can be reimagined. That is not a radical idea. That is an idea that’s steeped in humanity and dignity and justice. Pull back and say, ‘We’ve given the police too much wherewithal, too much power in that space.’ And that’s what defunding the police is about.”
Theoretically, an officer’s role directing traffic and providing crowd control could be outsourced. “The reason for having police officers on set is to maintain a safe environment for cast, crew and the communities that host on-location production,” says California film commissioner Colleen Bell. “Perhaps there’s a better way to achieve that goal.”
Former NYPD detective Sgt. Joseph Giacalone, who teaches criminal justice at John Jay College, accuses the industry of hypocrisy in its outrage. “Anything that anybody from Hollywood says on this is so disingenuous,” says Giacalone. “They don’t live in neighborhoods with high crime rates. They live in walled mansions with private security. They’re going to say, ‘Defund the police’? If they call the police, the police are going to come to them. What about the poor people?”
Amid the national conversation on police brutality, some who have made their careers on cop-themed content are questioning their own past work, even if it falls into the canon of dirty cop narratives. Glen Mazzara, a writer and executive producer on The Shield, recently rewatched an episode of the Michael Chiklis-led FX drama with his 16-year-old son and felt regret. “Vic [Chiklis’ character] was assisting [some retired cops]. They brutalized some Black suspects. They cut one guy’s dreads off. They shoved another guy’s face in the toilet,” Mazzara recalls. “It was really ugly. It was based on true stories that we had heard from cops, but I think that’s traumatic to put that out there. You may say you’re holding up a mirror, but part of what we do is entertain, and I would be more mindful of the Black audience and realize that there’s nothing entertaining about putting that trauma onscreen.”
The Shield was launched nearly two decades ago, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Given that so many first responders died in the attacks, the already celebrated cop image was elevated even more, especially in Hollywood: Elton John, Jay-Z and Adam Sandler stepped up for a 9/11 benefit concert that honored fallen NYPD and NYFD officers and raised some $35 million. Fast-forward to 2020, and everything is seen through a different prism.
Nonprofit advocacy group Color of Change set out in 2019 to break down the makeup of the average crime show’s writers room, particularly the police procedural, and what influence that might have on depictions of heroes, villains and race. In January, the organization published a 154-page report, Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations that Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre, in conjunction with the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center Media Impact Project. The study examined 26 scripted crime series over the 2017-18 TV season and found that 78 percent of writers were white and 20 of 26 series had either no Black writers or just one Black writer. It ranked each series by the number of its depictions of people of color relative to the percentage of diverse writers. Netflix’s Narcos was the worst offender, followed by Fox’s 9-1-1, NBC’s Chicago P.D., CBS’ Hawaii Five-0 and CBS’ Criminal Minds.
Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson presented the finished report at a series of salons, including at the Sundance Film Festival, where he received a “polite” response.
“Now I have folks in a much different way asking what are our demands, what can we do, what should we fix,” he says. “I always tell people, ‘Before you start looking outward, look inward to where you have the most power.’ And for folks in Hollywood, they have the most power over content. We hope that people will recognize all the ways in which the unwritten rules about policing, about racism, are oftentimes written and exported by their industry. It raises the question, ‘Is Hollywood serving as a PR arm for law enforcement that are hurting and killing people?’ “
Despite the recent cancellations of reality series Live PD and Cops in response to growing calls to divest, in some pockets of the industry it appears to be business as usual. In early June, John Wick producer Mike Witherill kicked off production on a docuseries about Joe Arpaio, the polarizing former Arizona sheriff. Not only is the self-described “America’s toughest sheriff” participating in the docuseries that would follow his bid to regain his seat in Maricopa County, but he is also being paid a $10,000 consulting fee. The fact that the man who oversaw the worst pattern of racial profiling in U.S. history, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, would benefit financially from his involvement was not lost on members of the documentary community.
“The idea that someone like Sheriff Joe could be paid a fee to consult on a series that’s about him is really problematic,” International Documentary Association executive director Simon Kilmurry tells THR. “I think we have treated criminal justice as an entertainment too often, and that is something that deserves really thoughtful scrutiny.”
But Witherill says there’s nothing unethical about the arrangement. “I paid to acquire his life rights, which is typical,” says Witherill, who is in talks with potential distributors. “He has no editorial control over the final product. There are people involved who are adamantly opposed to his policies. It will be fair.”
Meanwhile, there’s slim chance that the networks will kill their most lucrative product, the long-running police procedural. The original Law & Order has spawned five spinoffs including SVU, which was recently renewed for its 22nd, 23rd and 24th seasons, as well as a TV movie and five video games. And the buddy cop movie continues to rack up billions at the box office. The Bruce Willis-led Die Hard franchise earned $1.44 billion worldwide, and the genre shows no signs of abating, with this year’s Will Smith-Martin Lawrence pairing Bad Boys for Life landing $419 million worldwide.
Still, for Abel Ferrara, who directed the definitive dirty cop movie, Bad Lieutenant, Floyd’s death marks a turning point.
“If they didn’t film that guy kneeling on his neck, none of this would have happened. That’s the power of the image,” notes Ferrara. “So, what does Hollywood have? We have the ability to create images and tell stories and shine a light. It’s just standing up [against] what we all know is not correct.”
Actors’ union SAG-AFTRA recently signed on to a letter in support of the Justice in Policing Act, which would ban police chokeholds and no-knock warrants and limit military-style weapons on America’s streets (the bill is now under review in the U.S. Senate). The Motion Picture Association, the American trade association representing the five major film studios as well as Netflix, also lent its support.
Robinson says he is fielding calls from Hollywood power brokers about effecting change. “We have not heard from Dick Wolf, but we have heard from Dick Wolf’s show,” he says. “As a person who has done this work for years, I don’t get super excited when someone calls you for the conversation. I get more excited when we get closer to real change happening.”
Mia Galuppo, Rebecca Keegan and Bryn Elise Sandberg contributed to this report.
This story first appeared in the July 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.