The death of the cop movie

With increasingly exposed police brutality and calls to defund the force, is it time the film industry put one of its most successful genres into custody?

While the question of defunding the police has been gaining traction online, a related question that has emerged is: what will become of the many films and TV shows set in the world of policing? Is this the end of the cop movie as we know it? 

Police officers have been a staple of cinema for practically as long as films have existed. A silent short from 1907, The Policemen’s Little Run by Ferdinand Zecca, operates in a comical vein, featuring a whole squadron of cops giving chase to a sausage-thieving dog. In the films of Charlie Chaplin, meanwhile, the role of law enforcement is often adopted as a temporary nemesis by his character, The Tramp – in 1928’s The Circus, Chaplin unwittingly becomes the star of the show after running away from a police officer. 

The sequence is sensationally devised, featuring the actor at his most lightly gymnastic – and it shows the interaction between cop and criminal as essentially a comedy Punch and Judy act. Chaplin starts off being chased, but later becomes the chaser, ridiculing the police officer and causing him to fall over (much to the delight of the audience). 

In this register, the police officer is viewed as a natural antagonist for a happy-go-lucky small time criminal. The wrongdoers and the police rough each other up a bit, exchanging kicks up the backside on roughly equal terms. Chaplin (and other slapstick performers before and since) takes the cop out of his function and turns him into a dumb, bumbling figure of fun. The figure goes hand-in-hand with the kind of idealistic-but-innocent police officer you see in film noir – a nebbish who fails to understand the complexity at hand. 

Later on, in the 1980s and 90s (an apogee for cop films), hardened, tough cops would be partnered with a fresher, more hopeful police officer, such as Brad Pitt in Seven, desperately chasing down yet another hopeless case, or Jodie Foster’s FBI agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (for once a rounded, doubting, complex individual, but a clear exception to run-of-the-mill beat policing). 

The buddy-cop” movie thrived during this time too, from Lethal Weapon to Men In Black, via – ahem – Turner & Hooch. In general terms you can see the buddy cop as giving an impression of the police as, at worst, lazy: the schlubby, friendly, peanut-eating cop appears in stuff like Police Academy and is successfully parodied in The Naked Gun series. It’s also notable how much the genre chose to make many of the cop buddies black and white, from Seven to Lethal Weapon and Die Hard 2 to Miami Vice. The move seems a disingenuous one, creating not just an incorrect picture of diversity on the force, but an illusion of racial equality. The dynamic works hard to exonerate whiteness. 

Later, Antoine Fuqua (a black director) would up-end this trope with Training Day, giving Denzel Washington the opportunity to play a bent cop opposite Ethan Hawke’s more honourable officer. The movie acknowledges corruption (it’s based on the Rampart corruption scandal), but again seems to fall short by seeing Washington’s Alonzo as a rogue instance of bad policing”, rather than an exemplar of law enforcement being bad to the bone. 

Even a movie casting doubt on the effectiveness of policing, such as Curtis Hanson’s 1997 L.A. Confidential, features two idealistic cop figures who are balanced out with personal flaws. In L.A. Confidential, Guy Pearce’s Edmund Exley is a stuck-up and superior prig, while Russell Crowe’s Bud White is presented as a violent hothead. Such character traits are presented as worthwhile collateral – it’s fine for him to be a brute given that he operates broadly in service of the right ends. This is the essence of the bad cop”: the guy who gets the job done, at whatever cost, via means fair or foul. It’s of course nonsense but, as with so many tropes to do with the police, it is a potent type.

L.A. Confidential presents the police as, at heart, a corrupt force, power-drunk and venal; the movie uncovers a massive, truly repellent conspiracy of power, sex and money. Yet in many ways the film presents those individual cops who misbehave as having forgotten the true essence of policing. Exley’s motives for joining the force are about seeking justice for Rollo Tomassi”, a made-up figure who serves as a recurring reminder in the film of what to look out for while doing the job – the truth, the underdog, maintaining a civilised world.

As veteran civil rights campaigner Angela Davis argues, the police are not an obvious facet of the civilised world – rather an invention with the precise aim of upholding white supremacy”

But as veteran civil rights campaigner Angela Davis argues, the police are not an obvious facet of the civilised world – rather an invention with the precise aim of upholding white supremacy. As well as the widely reported police brutality against black people in America, the Macpherson report appeared 20 years ago and found the UK police to be institutionally racist – today, black people are still 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police. This means that the question of how to represent the police is not a trivial one. Traditional representations of the force have served to paper over these injustices, so we wait to see how the police will be depicted going forward.

Back in 1976, Horace Ové’s film Pressure – the first black British feature film to be totally unflinching in its depiction of racist police brutality – was banned for a period by the British Film Institute. The film shows that for a black citizen, the connection of the police to the law is at best flimsy, at worst a cover-up for sustained persecution of black people. Pressure sees the force as a systemic whole, which differentiates it from so many other movie depictions which focus on police as individuals. 

Cinema and TV tell stories, so they humanise police officers (in the same way we see the front page photograph of a policeman getting down at Notting Hill Carnival). In reality though, racism is not only a problem of individuals, but a problem of the system itself. Inevitably cinema is at pains to show the overall workings of a machine, preferring to show the ere cogs. 

So if we accept that our popular understanding of the police as a force for good – or even just as a necessary part of public life – must change, what does the future hold for cop movies? Might they come to be seen as another ugly relic of a racist time, like so many previously unexamined blackface scenes before them? 

Of course, not all films and shows are oblivious – Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop bares its fangs when examining a bleak dystopia of normalised violence – but it may be that we are about to witness a new era of gonzo, politicised films that lay the blame for so much racist brutality at the police’s feet

The next few years are certain to see an explosion of revisionist dramas and documentaries demanding greater accountability from law enforcement, if only to respond to the public fervour of a social movement that has gained considerable ground. But it would be wise not to hold out too much hope that the status quo will be wholly turned on its head by the white men with money at the top of the Hollywood chain. 


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