Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Ironside III: Criminal Minds, Luther

So, did you watch it?  This is part III of a series of Ironside posts.  Here is part I and here part II.

I like Luther.  To my mind, it is one of a very few programs that center on a male character of African descent without either pathologizing him or writing him into a series of polarized (violent or noble/long-suffering, but dignified) stereotypes.  The main character is complicated, yes.  And like many other cop shows, the drama arises from a series of questionable decisions with respect to the law and policing practice.  The thing is, though, that most of these decisions are narratively driven -- that is, they are both event/plot focused and directly tied to psychological character/personality.  They are not connected to elements external to the series.  And by that, I mean that they are not about someone's (inaccurate) imaginings of what it means to be a black man.

I wish the Ironside team had taken a leaf from the Luther script book: Race matters.  And because race matters in the ways that it does, disability in Ironside becomes doubly significant.

We are, mostly from film, accustomed to seeing successful African-American actors take lead action roles, but I am hard pressed to think of a successful network primetime show that has cast a (male) African American actor in the lead.  [Yes, Scandal, always.  But Scandal is very centered in a particular woman's/women's world.]

Do you remember Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior?  It was an unsuccessful spin-off: anchored by Forest Whitaker, poorly conceptualized, weakly written, and justly cancelled after one season.  I admit to having watched the show regularly.  I found myself considering the characterization of the primary character, Sam Cooper.  As I contrasted Cooper with the depiction of the impulsive, quick to anger, less controlled and still gentle, caring Derek Morgan (played by Shemar Moore on the original Criminal Minds), I came to think that Cooper's sadness was intended to counterbalance conventional stereotypes of black men and counteract a mainstream audience's understanding of roles appropriate for black men.

So many of the lead cops in these kinds of programs are what I call "good renegades."  They bend a couple of rules here and there; they are strong, sometimes angry, always action-oriented, bad-good boys.  Given the way our culture understands race, I think the script writing/visioning team thought it was impossible for the show to be successful on the networks if they cast a black male lead who has these characteristics.  So, they characterized Cooper differently: Cooper was rule-driven, saddened by the pressure of and for success, pained by the crimes before him and quietly hurt by whatever burdens his history laid upon him.  In other words, Cooper was to be seen as deeply empathetic.

I'm pained by a reality in which I find myself saying some version of "it is novel for lead black characters in this genre to be seen as feeling," but it is nonetheless an important statement.  Derek Morgan cannot lead the BAU full time; Sam Cooper can and does.  Or at least, he might have been able to had the writing of the show been better.  (I do not want to believe that people did not watch simply because the lead was an African-American man.)

Luther, by contrast, ran three seasons and is on its way to becoming a film.  Instead of watching Luther, I get the sense that the Ironside writers watched and modeled their primary character after Suspect Behavior.  Mainstream American television audiences are different from those in the UK; race is different in the US, too.  Suspect Behavior might well have seemed a better model.  But instead of relying on emotional characterization, the Ironside team took disability as their crutch.  Spinal cord injury is not a physical reality in this show; it's a metaphor that washes away mainstream fear about the cocky, outspoken, and successful black man.

If we see disability as a metaphor that governs (might one say "overcomes"?) racial stereotype and not a reality potentially lived by all of us regardless of race and ethnicity, we can make better sense of the opening episodes' two most important scenes: the opening, the flashback in which Ironside dangles a suspect hanging off the roof, and the transition/insight moment when Ironside breaks the case while processing his anger about the disabling shooting.

Both Luther and Ironside dangle suspects in their opening episodes.  Unseen, Luther lets his fall to the death -- deliberately (though an inquiry later finds him not guilty).  It's a deeply shocking moment that hangs over the rest of the programme.  The central character has committed murder minutes into the first episode; when will he be discovered and how?  What will be the consequences of this act?  You never quite lose sight of this drama, tied as it intimately is to the personality of Luther.  Each time this incident comes up, the viewer is asked to see Luther as someone so deeply principled that he can err -- grievously -- for the right cause.  This and other errors combine to reveal a character so vulnerable, so powerful and so interesting that his psychological makeup is not easily tied to common perceptions of race.

Within five minutes of the opening, Ironside is shown in a flashback to his non-disabled state.  His partner bashes the suspect with a railroad tie, Ironside dangles him off the roof, and both laugh and talk as they do so.  The suspect does not fall.  Theoretically, this should make Ironside the "better" cop -- the more "human" cop -- but it does not work that way.  The show opens with Ironside hitting a suspect who has been dragged into a car; he gives the suspect a knife and dares the suspect to stab him; the suspect breaks down -- stabbing a disabled person, angry or not, is too much.  It's as if the writers want to say Ironside was a tough rule-breaker before the accident; he is a tough rule-breaker after the accident.  Like other television detectives, he gets to beat up suspects; here, however, the violence is a means of showing he is still "effective," still one of the team, more than up to the job.

The valence of these transgressions is different.  Now that Ironside is disabled, the power dynamic of "officer/suspect" has changed.  Power is all too often seen as a function of physical strength.  Disabled people are supposed to be weak, physically and figuratively; they are in this scenario powerless.  Thus though Ironside wears a badge, we viewers are supposed to assume that power resides with the suspect.  We are supposed to admire the bravery of a disabled man who hits a non-cuffed suspect, offers him a knife, and dares him to use it.  In the midst of this sappy stereotyping, the fact that the officer assaults the suspect is lost.  Ironside is "bad-ass" (a favourite media word for the show), because he has a bad ass.

Disability challenges the viewer to reinterpret the meaning of, well, everything.  Also lost in the stereotyping above is an understanding of what might motivate a disabled man to take such extreme risks with his life and body.  In television series, those who have such an outsize liking for risk are treated as if they were either depressed, angry, or both.  So, yes.  Let’s talk about those things -- because, for television, the transition into disablement can only bring an irresolvable depression and/or anger. (Not that these don’t happen; they just don’t seem to happen the ways television thinks.)

To the non-disabled world, it makes sense for Ironside to be as angry as he occasionally is: that’s the pain of disablement speaking.  It makes him non-threatening; it counterbalances those stereotypes of angry black men. For the non-disabled world of television, Ironside's anger at his disability is inspirational, so inspirational that it enables Ironside's crime-solving insights: this is why the angry boxing scene is critical.  

It had to be boxing, of course, basketball or any other sport -- certainly not football -- would not do.  Ironside is shown coaching ice-hockey, but boxing is significant.  It's where black men in television go to work out their anger, to be found, to be offered discipline, focus, and a way out of their circumstances. Regardless of the actual reality, boxing in television has a metaphorical purpose.  As Ironside punches his anger out, Tech N9ne's lyrics blare, miscontextualized.  The song is in part about drugs and in part about inner personality demons.  In the show, it's about the anger, the rage at the disability and the shooting.  And suddenly, as Ironside pushes his wheelchair into his wall -- literally hitting the figurative brick wall -- he breaks his case.

In my last post about the series, I am going to write about how the understanding of disability as a function and not a reality affects the language in which Hollywood and mainstream reporters discuss the show.  If you understand disability as a figure or metaphor, how can you cast disabled actors?  In particular, I will be looking at how the figurative understanding and the casting of Mr. Underwood continue the discussion of what one reporter calls "color-blind" casting.


  1. I've had such a hectic time these past few weeks (and months), but I'm loving this on Ironside - this is some of the best writing on culture and social justice I've read in an age. Not sure I have much to add to that, but I'm riveted and looking forward to your next post.

  2. i was sorry to see ironside cancelled after only 3 episodes, before they had the chance to explore the character and the disability in depth. plus, in those 3 episodes, they never showed him struggling with things like broken sidewalks, inaccessible places, etc. and i thought his anger was well portrayed.