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’61st Street’ Review: Courtney B. Vance Wages War Against Chicago’s Corrupt Police Department in AMC Drama

Co-starring Aunjanue Ellis and Holt McCallany, the story may not win any points for originality, but its strong performances make it worthwhile.

Courtney B. Vance as Franklin Roberts and Aunjanue Ellis as Martha Roberts - 61st Street _ Season 1, Episode 1

Courtney B. Vance and Aunjanue Ellis in “61st Street”

James Washington/AMC

61st Street” tracks the infamy of the Chicago criminal justice system as police, prosecutors, politicians, and defense attorneys investigate a deadly drug bust that threatens an enduring code of silence. It’s the latest entry in a spate of television series (and movies) — inspired by peak public outrage over unjustified police killings of Black men and women — that foregrounds the experiences of African Americans navigating historically prejudiced institutions. For that reason primarily, “61st Street’ will be familiar. It also doesn’t go out of its way to separate itself from its peers and predecessors. But thanks to convincing performances by a cast led by Emmy winner Courtney B. Vance, Emmy nominee Aunjanue Ellis, and Holt McCallany at maybe his most devious — complete with a propulsive pace — the AMC+ series mostly enthralls.

Moses Johnson (Tosin Cole) is a high school track star, raised by single mother Norma Johnson (Andrene Ward-Hammond), and alienated from a deadbeat father serving a prison sentence as a result of his affiliation with local influential gang, The Nation. Moses is on his way to college thanks to an athletic scholarship — his ticket out of Chicago’s fabled South Side.

When a drug raid goes wrong, leading to the death of a police officer, Moses unwittingly becomes the prime suspect. On the run, labeled a cop killer (the equivalent of a death sentence, which fuels the manhunt), the promising future of this talented kid (“You’re going to be somebody Moses Johnson,” his high school coach tells him), a victim of his circumstance, is jeopardized.

Enter Franklin Roberts (Vance), a Chicago public defender recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. But the distress doesn’t discourage him from taking Moses Johnson’s case. If anything, his legacy of activism as a fighter for the marginalized put to the test, it provides a spark; he may not have much longer to live, which gives the Johnson case added meaning, if only because it could be his last.

And if he wasn’t already a workaholic, Roberts dives into the track star’s defense with renewed verve, which is exactly what his client and his client’s family need more than ever — somebody principled who believes in them and is in a position to help; someone who understands and prioritizes their needs, and is willing to go to battle for their interests, against Chicago’s racist criminal justice apparatus.

The real-life history of virulent racism within the Chicago Police Department (CPD) has been well-documented.

As of 2016, the city had paid out over $662 million in settlements for police misconduct cases over the previous 12 years alone. And in 2017 a Justice Department investigation of the Chicago Police Department found that officers used brutal force and coercive tactics with African American suspects almost 10 times more often than with white suspects. Cited were instances of torture, including near-suffocation, electric shock, and beatings with a variety of instruments, in order to elicit false confessions.

This is the world that “61st Street” candidly exhumes, and does so without succumbing to melodrama or heavy-handedness. It’s a Chicago where a wrong turn could mean unknowingly stepping into a turf war, in which both armed Black civilians and prejudiced cops walk around on edge with itchy trigger fingers. It’s a powderkeg scenario that is often one or two altercations away from exploding into violent chaos, as is the case in the first episode of the series.

African American suspect Rufus (Kevin Tre’von Patterson), and a police officer named Michael Rossi (Patrick Mulvey) end up dead in a situation that, handled sensibly, could have resulted in far less tragic results. Of course, Chicago’s entire police force — which is quite literally a good ol’ boys club, as the series doesn’t feature any women officers in prominent roles — will stop at nothing to make an example of any Black man they can successfully pin the murder on, his guilt or innocence be damned.

Looming is the reality of a national racial justice movement that reached a new level of public consciousness in 2020, following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans, that led to protests across the country and around the world. And questions were raised about both real-life and fictional depictions of law enforcement practices, inspiring a Color of Change study which found that television crime shows erase racism and normalize police malfeasance while excluding people of color from the creative and decision-making rooms where these series are hatched.

This is the charged environment into which “61st Street” will be unleashed when it premieres on April 10. And while attempts are made to highlight the complexities of policing, so as not to paint a reductive portrait of those who wear the uniform, in the four episodes AMC+ made available for review, it’s immediately clear that what matters most to producers Peter Moffat, J. David Shanks, and Michael B. Jordan is that the audience empathizes with the real-life men and women represented in the series by Moses Johnson, his vulnerable mother Norma, his brave public defender Franklin Roberts, and Martha Roberts (Ellis), the fiery aspiring politician on a mission to affect local legislation in a way that would balance the scales of justice.

Comparisons to “The Wire” are likely if only because it chronicles its subject matter via multiple points of view brought to life by an ensemble cast. Although “61st Street” is very much Vance’s show to carry, and the writing makes the most of the talented actor’s depiction of repressed turmoil, as a brilliant, deceptively bumbling warrior for the invisible among us. He isn’t driven by fortune or celebrity. He’s fueled by righteous indignation and unwavering ethics. A realist who not only wants to defend Moses Johnson but also aims to take down an entire system that continues to send a disproportionately large number of young Black men to prison, the series considers the toll he’s endured by a decades-long commitment to ideals that are beyond himself.

There’s also a physicality in Vance’s performance, marked by an overall visible awkwardness, as he zips around the city always in a dark, slightly oversized suit, and a shifting gaze that’s obscured by thick black glasses just beneath a head of “hat hair” owed to his affinity for fedoras. The straight-backed character the actor often plays is deliberately deglamorized, and Vance fully and comfortably inhabits Roberts, balancing both dramatic demands and occasional levity. Although, subsumed by an uncaring landscape, it wouldn’t be a surprise if, in the end, Roberts comes out victorious, but not without some dirt on his shirt, or even blood on his hands.

Opposite Vance, it’s wonderful to see Aunjanue Ellis play more than just “The Wife.” Martha Roberts has a life and character arc entirely separate from her husband’s obsessions. She’s running for alderwoman in Chicago’s 5th Ward (a key legislative district) against a challenging opponent, and will not compromise her principles to win. Given that police reform is a key tenet of her campaign, it’s possible that her path will eventually cross Franklin’s case, resulting in likely increased stakes.

Holt McCallany as Lieutenant Brannigan is set up as the series’ primary antagonist — a veteran who may or may not have been an idealist when he first entered the force, only to eventually get swallowed up by a broken system. He’s calculating and ruthless, and his comfort suggests that his criminality isn’t new.

He and Franklin Roberts clearly have history. A mano a mano between the two may come later in the season, influencing the story’s climax or denouement.

Where the series risks audience apathy is that it tells a story the country has seen play out in real life many times over, so much that it may have become numb to it all. And “61st Street” doesn’t make any transgressive choices in its approach to story, style, and/or structure in order to separate itself from the assembly line of similar shows, especially amid calls to “defund the police” as the eyes of millions of Americans of all colors have been opened to a cold reality long-lived by those who are most often the target of police brutality.

But the bravado performances from its starring cast, and straightforward, non-sensationalized handling of the story — both in the writing and directing —  should appeal to hopeful viewers looking for signs of morality and bravery especially within the main branches of government. It’s a temporary escape from the depressing realities of corrupt politicians, racist taxpayer-funded institutions, and a general lack of courage, especially among the powerful, when it comes to challenging the status quo.

Grade: B

“61st Street” debuts Sunday, April 10 at 10pm ET/PT on AMC, with the first two episodes streaming on AMC+ and ALLBLK. New episodes will roll out weekly, on Sundays, and be available one week early on AMC+ and ALLBLK.

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