Blacks In The Old West & New York: A Look At The Representation Of The Black Population In “The Adventures Of Brisco County, Jr.” & “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”
“The Adventures Of Brisco County, Jr.”
“The Adventures Of Brisco County, Jr.” was an hour-long comedy-drama Western that had an extremely short life – one season. It aired on FOX for the 1993-1994 season.
The show takes place in the Old West, just before the turn of the twentieth century. The two lead roles of the show are Brisco County, Jr. (played by Bruce Campbell), a white bounty hunter and his rival-turned-partner Lord Bowler (played by Julius Carry), a black bounty hunter.
Brisco’s father was also a bounty hunter, and was killed by criminal gang-leader John Bly. This is one of the main reasons Brisco became a bounty hunter – much of the run of the show is fueled by his dedication to catching Bly. Before becoming a bounty hunter, Brisco graduated from Harvard with a law degree.
Lord Bowler is a towering and militant (literally) black man. Part Cherokee Indian, Bowler’s real name is James Lonefeather. He was First Sergeant is the U.S. 10th Cavalry before becoming a bounty hunter. This Cavalry was one of the two “buffalo soldier” – African-American, post-Civil War – regiments of the U.S. Army at the time. (His bounty hunter “uniform” contains his Cavalry trousers as a testament to this.)
The character of Bowler is considerably complex (arguably more so than that of Brisco). When not on the trail hunting bounties, he lives in a large mansion in San Francisco (the home-base of Brisco, Bowler, and the show), in which he keeps his prized crystal collection. At one point, when thinking of retiring from the bounty hunting business, he considers opening a winery.
Bowler is often considered the “sidekick” to the “legendary” Brisco (both he and his father, in fact, are legends) by others, but their partnership proves otherwise. Bowler initiates hunts just as often as Brisco, Bowler saves Brisco’s life just as often as the reverse, and their individual strengths create an equal, compatible team as opposed to Brisco being the leader.
The character of Brisco is generally more central to the show, if not its reality. I think this is more likely due to, in addition to the “sidekick” schtick being good for a laugh, the cult legend status of actor Bruce Campbell in the role of Brisco. (Plus, “The Adventures Of Brisco County, Jr.” is an awesome title.)
Interestingly, the race card is almost never played. When Bowler’s involvement in the Army surfaces, only his position and Cavalry are mentioned. (I had to do research to find out its history.) Additionally, it is very common for Brisco and Bowler to come across other blacks in their travels and hunts. Their race is never remarked upon. It is merely there for us to see. (And none of them are the “bad guys”.)
I have seen most if not all of the episodes, and the only time I have seen it come up was briefly, as a joke. In the episode, Brisco is seriously injured. Bowler says: “Do something, Brisco! Didn’t you study medicine at Howard?” Brisco replies: “Harvard.” Bowler replies: “Whatever.” And we immediately move onto the next beat.
The absence of the mention of race – and, even the very inclusion of blacks – may strike one as a bit strange, considering the time in which the show takes place (not to mention the Western genre in general). However, the show’s depiction of black characters is more historically accurate than not, when looked through the lens of William Loren Katz’s book, “The Black West” (Open Hand Publications, 3rd Edition, 1994).
According to Katz, there were many black cowboys in the Old West. There they “found less discrimination out on the trail than in town, more equality back on the ranch than in the frontier communities. Oddly enough, clashes between black and white cowboys themselves were rare.”
The Old West was, literally, a new frontier. It was a time and place where the social norms of the East did not apply; instead, it was a new, empty slate. And though racism and race discrimination eventually did follow and infiltrate this new territory, for a brief time it was an area far from a “whites only” mentality.
This mentality is not shown in the famous John Wayne-esque Western films of Hollywood’s early years (and even today’s). But, thankfully, at least one product of the media has represented this angle – “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.”, one of television’s greatest (though unfortunately shortest) moments.
“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”
“Law & Order: SVU” is, arguably, one of the best shows on television today. It is rivaled in quality (in my humble opinion) only by the original “Law & Order” (both on NBC).
“SVU” takes place in New York City and follows the investigations and adventures of what is commonly called the “sex crimes” unit of the NYPD. Because it constantly deals with all sorts of events and people, and because it is (again, my humble opinion) the only show even remotely accurate in its representation of New York City, it is fair to say that the level of diversity of the show, across the board, is quite high. Particularly when compared to other shows on television, it is highly representative of the city’s – and even the country’s – population.
But, while I appreciate the show giving so many opportunities to actors of color, upon closer look I became discouraged at the representation of blacks that “SVU” offers. While I understand the need for a certain amount of conformity within the confines of network television, I also understand“Law & Order” to be an extremely stable franchise, with the freedom to push the envelope in ways that other shows aren’t allowed to do.
Don’t get me wrong; the fact that the show does represent marginalized groups at all is amazing. That said, let’s take a look at said representations.
I took a random sampling of fifteen episodes spanning the third, fourth, and fifth seasons of the show (2001 to 2004). A season-by-season breakdown of those episodes is: four episodes from season three, three from season four, and eight from season five.
Among those working with the justice system in some way, blacks constitute
- two female defense attorneys (one appeared twice, played by C.C.H. Pounder);
- a male uniformed cop;
- and the medical examiner, the recurring guest star of Tamara Tunie as Melinda Warner.
Among the victims of crime, blacks constitute
- a handful of teenage girls in Harlem, all of whom were good students who had never been in trouble;
- the male foster child of a white woman, whose dad died in jail, and whose mom used to drag her children out panhandling – now, she gets supervised visits with her three children every two weeks at McDonald’s (oh, and her new boyfriend plays the sax at a jazz club)
- and a 17-year-old female runaway.
Among the “perps” and suspects of crime, blacks constitute
- a male HIV-positive sexual predator with a rap sheet that started when he was seven, accruing eleven arrests by age thirteen;
- a male, biracial (black/Asian) rapist who was a child of rape (his father was black);
- a male escaped convict;
- a middle-class family (he was a college basketball star) with foster children;
- and a group of black men in a “down low” (black men getting together and having sex with each other, calling it “poker night”, and maintaining an otherwise straight identity), one of whom is an HIV-positive Bronx ADA who killed his white male lover for falling in love with him and insisting he leave his family, another of whom is a former professional football player-turned-real estate businessman.
Among those the detectives otherwise come in contact with in the course of their investigations, blacks constitute:
- Sister Peg (a mildly recurring character), a nun who works the streets, giving clean needles to junkies, helping prostitutes stay safe;
- a female housekeeper for a rich white family;
- a female worker at a daycare center;
- a female bartender at a nightclub;
- a female office worker in the public education system;
- a male EMT,
- a woman who doesn’t know who her father’s son is;
- a mother whose son is in foster care, after her daughter drowned in the bathtub while she was on the phone (she’s also a convict);
- and lots of prostitutes over the course of several episodes.
Also, “coincidentally”, in the episodes that deal with the black population more overtly, the secondary character of Detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola (a black man, played by Ice-T), appears more often, often dealing more directly with the (black) victims and suspects. Actually, a study of the character of Tutuola is an interesting microcosm of how the show portrays blacks.
As one of the two people of color in the cast, he is credited at the end, ahead only of the other person of color (FBI psychiatrist George Huang, played by B.D. Wong). Indeed, he has the least amount of screen time among the major players. When he does, he is most often paired up with Detective John Munch (played by Richard Belzer), and they act as the “assistants” to the other two detectives who are usually lead (Elliot Stabler, played by Christopher Meloni and Olivia Benson, played by Mariska Hargitay, both white, who have top billing on the show).
Tutuola grew up with a “large family in a small apartment” in Harlem. Before joining the Special Victims Unit, he worked in narcotics; he has a black drug-dealer informant he collared while a narc.
Among the things he contributes to various investigations are his knowledge of gang signs; Asian gangs; a synagogue which used to be an Episcopal church and a stop on the underground railroad; and the “downlow” (see above for explanation) – and he offers to try to crack an alleged member of said downlow.
In one episode involving a string of rape-murders of teenage girls in Harlem, Tutuola’s involvement is personal. He knows one of the victim’s families, having grown up with the mother. When the brother of the victim accuses the police of not caring because “it happened north of 96th Street,” Tutuola tells him to save that for someone else – “we’re from the same place and we’re the same color.”
Later, he is upset over the lack of coverage of the murders by the police and by the media. Captain Donald Cragen (played by Dann Florek), who is white, tries to empathize with him, saying: “Look, I know where you’re coming from.” Tutuola lashes out: “No, you don’t know where I’m coming from; there’s no way you can know where I’m coming from.” Cragen replies: “Don’t you dare presume to know what’s in my head.” Tutuola replies: “No matter what you say, Captain, you’re not black and you’re not from the hood.”
In many of these representations there are great truths. There are a disproportionate number of black children in foster care (and black men in prison, and black women as prostitutes). Harlem does maintain a tight-knit African-American community. Tutuola was justified in getting angry at Cragen for attempting to empathize with him. But among these representations are obvious perpetuations of the status quo’s stereotypes of the black population. Tutuola, while a complex character, is also a stereotypical black man in a lot of ways, as demonstrated above. This statement extends to the representation of the many black characters that come in and out of the show for brief periods of time. For every Melinda Warner, there’s a rapist. For every Sister Peg, there’s a man who died in jail.
“SVU” is a big fat compromise – while it uses its clout to challenge some of the media’s more common portrayal of blacks and other marginalized groups, it leaves the rest firmly in place, apparently not wanting to rock the boat too much.
I will still argue that “SVU” is one of the best places to go for a better look at reality than most, if not all other shows on television (both currently and throughout the medium’s history). However, we clearly still have a ways to go before even such influential shows as those of the “Law & Order” franchise can shed their need to conform to the status quo, thus perpetuating its stereotypes.