Why do television dramas insist on portraying Chicago, my hometown, as a city full of violence and decay? Like any major city in America, the metropolitan area has crime, drugs, and police corruption problems. Yet, its sense of community and deep roots in Black culture make the town a vibrant place for all its residents. Great musicians, writers, and politicians like Sam Cooke, Ida B. Wells, and Barack Obama tried their luck in the Windy City. Unfortunately, noted British playwright and television writer Peter Moffat only sees Chicago as an urban wasteland in his new AMC series 61st Street.
Executive produced by Michael B. Jordan, 61st Street is an exploration into the corrupt criminal justice system in the cold streets of Chicago. With its harsh lighting and gritty tone, the crime drama spotlights the law enforcement agents who terrorize the Black residents of the Chicago South Side. However, it is hard to take the pilot episode seriously when it gives the crooked cops more attention than their victims, wastes Courtney B. Vance’s talent as a performer, and most notably, depicts Chicago as a violent paradise for the depraved.
61st Street follows Black high school track star Moses (Tosin Cole) as he fights for his freedom against the legal system in Chicago. While walking home from practice, Moses runs into a group of gang members harassing his younger brother Joshua (Bentley Green) for the simple infraction of stepping into their territory. Though Moses tries to prevent the gang from hurting his sibling, the police arrive to charge everyone for drug possession. Chaos ensues, and the athlete runs away from the crime scene before the cops handcuff him like his brother.
Unfortunately, police officer Michael (Patrick Mulvey) catches up to Moses and corners him between 61st and King Drive. Within seconds, the young man’s situation takes a horrific turn when he pushes the cop to the ground. Tragically for both parties, this alteration causes the white man to fall on top of a steel rod, and he immediately dies from the impact. As the night wears on, Moses becomes a wanted fugitive, and the vengeful cops target his brother and mother, Norma (Andrene Ward-Hammond). Fortunately for the high schooler, he has world-weary legal advocate Franklin Roberts (Vance) to aid him.
Plenty of legal dramas focus their attention on cops, even corrupt ones like Shades of Blue and The Shield. But instead of separating itself from the pack, 61st Street utilizes almost every stereotype about cops, such as their penchant for planting drugs on unsuspected Black folks. Like the previously mentioned shows, 61st Street uses its airtime to humanize law enforcement agents and treat Black men, women, and children as criminal suspects. Perhaps the series can improve if it slows down and spends more time on Moses and his family. Yet, the likelihood of that happening in the following episodes seems positively slim as it gives the men in blue more dignity and respect than their Black victims.
Along with the terrible story, the actors waste their talents on 61st Street, especially Vance. It is as if the crime thriller zaps the performer’s charm and zeal for life out of him and replaces it with absolute dread. Considering the actor always carries himself with great stature as he goes up against his white counterparts, like in his previous role as Johnnie Cochran in The People v. O. J. Simpson, it is odd to see him in such a sad state.
Vance’s lack of appeal is in full effect when Franklin tries to help his client from a shoplifting charge. In the depressing scene, the lawyer argues to the judge that his client had to steal baby formula to feed his daughter. Yet, the judge only sees the Black man as a petty criminal and charges him with 30 months in prison.
This verbal duel between the two grown men rings false because it presents Franklin as an incompetent or rookie lawyer who cannot contain himself in front of a judge. As the show emphasizes, Franklin has a history of representing the poor and oppressed. Therefore, it does not make sense for the Black attorney to lose his cool in the courtroom. A better writer will know that Franklin has the tools, skills, and experience to handle a racist white judge.
Cole does a slightly better job with his role as Moses. The actor’s chill demeanor and tall frame make him a believable athlete. One scene that highlights his acting abilities is his final meeting with his coach before he takes off for college. As the young man has a heart-to-heart with his mentor, the coach hands him a new pair of running shoes as a parting gift. Quiet yet poignant, this moment gives the actor the space to show his character’s humanity. Yet, Cole cannot save the series from its subpar script. Unfortunately, that hurdle is impossible to overcome as the crime drama portrays itself as a bargain bin version of The Wire.
Yet, the biggest issue with 61st Street is its inaccurate portrayal of the Chicago South Side. While the area includes various racial and economic backgrounds, Moffat depicts the South Side as a poverty-stricken cesspool for Black mayhem. Yet, a quick Google Maps search will reveal that the intersection Moses accidentally murders the officer at is in an up-and-coming neighborhood called Woodlawn.
Not only does the community border the University of Chicago, but it is also the home of the DuSable Museum of African American History and the future site of the Obama Presidential Center. This lapse in judgment proves that Moffat knows absolutely nothing about Chicago. Instead of conducting any meaningful research, the creator sensationalizes the South Side for entertainment value, particularly for the white gaze.
When it comes to crafting thrilling crime dramas like The Night Of and Criminal Justice, Moffat is a creative genius. However, the British writer lacks the knowledge and depth to craft a compelling show about the most populous city in the Midwest. Despite its negative reputation, Chicago is a city full of beautiful people and stories that deserve to be on the screen. Hopefully, the creator will do more research before writing about another great American city.
61st Street airs new episodes Sundays at 7/10 p.m. EST on AMC.