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Beyond “Copaganda”: Hollywood’s offscreen relationship with the police

Beyond “Copaganda”: Hollywood’s offscreen relationship with the police

Do Hollywood’s portrayals of policing matter as much as the industry’s material entwinement with law enforcement—as much as the working relationships pursued beyond the screen? 

Instead of conceding that the consumers of popular media are eminently capable of thinking for themselves (and thus of resisting flattering depictions of power), more and more commentators are calling for the complete elimination of cop shows, cinematic police chases, and other, ostensibly entertaining images of law enforcement. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the journalist Alyssa Rosenberg, writing in the Washington Post, called on Hollywood to “immediately halt production on cop shows and movies.” “Like policing itself,” tweeted the journalist and academic Steven Thrasher earlier this year, “copaganda”—a popular neologism describing the perceived capacity of screen representations to promote law enforcement—“must be abolished. It can’t be reformed.” For Thrasher, any representation of policing simply “blunts our imagination.” 

Never mind that media scholars have, since at least the 1970s, insisted that film and television do not necessarily determine human behavior, whatever our moral opposition to simulated bloodlettings and other odious scenes. Today, proclaiming that commercial entertainment strictly dictates our emotional as well as political responses is very much in vogue, as anyone who consults social networking services can readily attest. Get rid of “cop content,” goes the Twitter-friendly premise, and you will immediately weaken the power of public police departments. Without popular media telling Americans to admire law enforcement, such departments will lose the fuel they need in order to promote social inequality. They will be starved of “prestige,” forfeit the eyes and ears of the polity, and wither away as a result. 

Yet representation is not, of course, the whole story, and the disproportionate attention that it receives surely distracts from other avenues through which popular media empower and expand law enforcement in the United States. Those who proudly peddle the censorial argument would do well to ask themselves why, for instance, corporate giants have been so swift to consent to it, banning certain long-running programs, publicly apologizing for others, and generally appearing to accede to the Twittersphere. Today, those giants have as vested an interest in superficially responding to calls for social justice as they have in pursuing unchecked corporate power behind the scenes. Cops can be cancelled without much risk to the Paramount Network’s bottom line. But Viacom’s holdings are vast, materialized everywhere from the iconic Paramount Pictures studio lot in Los Angeles to corporate offices in Manhattan. Media are more than just sounds and images, messages and artistry; they are also real estate—privately owned properties that depend on public as well as private police forces for their protection, and that, as concentrations of capital, only contribute to the social inequalities so frequently at the center of collisions between cops and citizens. Whether Warner Bros. depicts “good cops” or “bad cops” on screens big and small does not, after all, affect its capacity to retain immense power over labor.

Hollywood’s intimacy with public policing is longstanding, as Rosenberg and others have shown. Yet that relationship has not been nearly as smooth or as consistent as is generally assumed; it is not reducible to the synergetic Dragnet. Police censorship of motion pictures was, as early as the first decade of the twentieth century, an object of growing public disdain, and it spoke to a tension—or paradox—at the heart of Tinseltown’s intersections with the cops: in several states, and for over five decades, police officers were empowered to ban or re-edit costly productions, even as they worked as paid advisors to movie companies. As Hollywood learned early on, the vast discretionary powers of public policing could turn on a dime; in the industry’s favor one day, those powers could mobilize against it the next. 

Today, banning the representation of policing—offering no images of cops whatsoever—is considered, by some, one possible solution to the conundrum, a way of ensuring that police departments cannot use movies and television programs for propaganda and recruitment purposes. Yet this extreme dispensation, with its promise of radical change, invokes an even broader form of social engineering—a way of remaking our minds so that we may perceive, through a certain sanitization of media, a world without cops, as if our imaginative faculties were somehow lacking on their own, our morals desperately in need of blinkers. “There is a world of stories beyond cop stories,” Thrasher has assured his readers, and until we eliminate all representations of law enforcement, policing will surely be “perceived as a necessity via Hollywood”. Such a simplistic position, which implies a passive mass audience, also ignores policing’s capacity to appropriate unexpected cultural products—to mine the movies for anything of value. 

For example, John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), one of the most cynical of all American films—an exploration of humans’ capacity for greed and brutality, made by a liberal who was himself critical of the police (one writer called him “an anti-authoritarian cop-hater”), and not at all a “cop story”—was nevertheless generative for law enforcement. Some sixty years after its initial release, the film in fact inspired “Operating Stinking Badges,” a joint federal-city policing policy that criminalized, among other offenses, the possession of counterfeit police gear. Named after a famous line (“I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”) uttered in the film by a Mexican bandit bent on impersonating an officer of the law, Operation Stinking Badges was challenged in 2010 by a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of those arrested, incarcerated, and prosecuted under the policy, which empowered all manner of police personnel to determine, at a glance, exactly what articles of clothing or modes of comportment constituted imitation. The plaintiffs noted that this post-9/11 security measure—the brainchild of Homeland Security and the NYPD—traded on the fame of Huston’s celebrated film, and thus lent the violation of civil liberties a certain Hollywood panache bound to appeal to the general public. A federal judge in Manhattan eventually ruled that the suit, which alleged widespread violations of First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights, lacked merit, and the federal appeals court agreed, upholding the constitutionality of a policy partly inspired by a Hollywood movie in which no American cop actually appears.  

Today the conglomerated makers of popular media have also learned to appease certain protestors, who might look away as soon as a show is cancelled or a film’s production suspended—or, for that matter, cheer the contemptuous representation of “bad” cops. The latter are central to Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957), which accordingly received positive attention from various anti-carceral factions—and negative attention from conservative commentators who felt that its defamatory portrayal of the NYPD was practically Soviet propaganda. Amid these debates about representation, however, the NYPD was busy expanding its special “youth squad”—recently formed to “control the fanatical fans of James Dean” (and increase drug arrests)—in order to police the film’s premiere, as it had policed the film’s production on location in “unruly” Manhattan. The independent companies behind Sweet Smell of Success (including that of liberal icon Burt Lancaster) cut costs by relying on the NYPD, which used its own resources to assist the shoot—a siphoning of public monies away from the public and toward private enterprise, a process that we do not necessarily see on the screen, that we cannot necessarily discern through attention to cinematic style alone, and that will scarcely cease once “cop stories” are banned.

Even earlier, on the opposite coast, the LAPD consented to certain “negative” representations of policing while its members, addressing closed Congressional hearings, testified to the Communist Party’s penetration of Hollywood studios. Liberal moviegoers might have been relieved to see defiantly anti-carceral films like MGM’s Faithless (1932), in which a beat cop, discussing alternatives to policing with Tallulah Bankhead’s desperate sex worker, decides not to arrest the woman but to find her a job as a waitress instead. What happened offscreen, however, was of far more consequence, both to the industry and to its audiences. Nearly four hundred miles north of the MGM lot, the Sacramento Police Department, which had a special anticommunist squad, claimed to have found evidence of the Communist affiliations of the Mexican-born Hollywood stars Lupe Vélez, Dolores del Río, and Ramón Novarro, who all faced deportation as a result—a cop-initiated harbinger of McCarthyism, which would, of course, offer its own prescriptions for “fixing” popular media and allowing audiences to imagine a world without communism. Produced during the Depression, Faithless directly depicts what many of today’s left-leaning activists would like to see—namely, the displacement of mass incarceration by a jobs guarantee. But the film’s representational turn to the left could in no way guarantee protection for actual leftists. 

What else might we miss by brooding over representation—by what does or does not show up on the screen? Today, we need not pretend that massive entertainment companies are ever on the side of social justice, or that, by micromanaging the stories they tell, we can somehow control their material and ideological ties to police departments. A high-profile cancellation (like that of Cops or Live PD) can be celebrated in a tweet about the sanitization of our screens. What happens behind those screens, however, may be harder to identify—and thus to oppose. It’s a bigger story than some would like to concede. Indeed, Hollywood’s long, jagged history of encounters with public policing has much to teach us about the lives of institutions—and individuals—under capitalism. 

Feature image: Police car belonging to the US Secret Service Uniformed Division patrols in Washington, DC. Photo by Matt Popovich, public domain via Unsplash.

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