Homicide: Life on The Street Retrospective A Continuing Series

What The Show Said About Race in Baltimore — And America

This kind of cast was radical for 1997. It’s radical today.

When Homicide debuted in 1993, one of the things that struck many critics and viewers was how many African Americans were regulars. When the series debuted, fully a third of the series nine-person cast were African American actors: Andre Braugher, Clark Johnson and Yaphet Kotto. The members of the cast would shift over time, but the percentage of African Americans as leads never changed; in fact, by the final season half the ten-person cast was now African American: in addition to Johnson and Kotto, Toni Lewis, Giancarlo Esposito and Michael Michelle were regulars. And this equal representation was top down: half of the recurring characters in the police department from the brass to the patrolmen, and a lion’s share of the guest stars were also African American. (Is this a subtle reason the series never achieved the rating heights of other procedurals? Hmm.)

Despite that, throughout Homicide’s run, actors like Braugher and Kotto frequently complained that the series never delved into the subject of race as much as they would have liked. That’s not fair to the writers — Homicide probably dealt with race relations as much as any series in the 1990s — but in retrospect, there are certain truths to that argument.

As pointed out in a book on the series written not long ago, of all the ‘red ball investigations that Homicide dealt with during its seven seasons on the air, only one — the murder of Adena Watson in Season 1 — ever dealt with the murder of a black person. In hindsight, this may have been due to how closely Tom Fontana and his writers were staying to David Simon’s book — the investigation into the murder of Latonya Wallace which inspired the Adena storyline — is the overarching narrative. Going forward, there is a remote possibility that by never having a similar style investigation, the writers were making a subtle point that the lives of African Americans, even children, matter less than white people to the brass and to the citizenry. (Giardello will actually make a point close to this in the second season.) This is born out by the fact that there at least a dozen investigations into the murders of African American children after this, but not one of them merits a red ball. (The only red ball involving a child at all involves a possible kidnapping late in Season Six. The victim is a four-year old white boy.)

You get the feeling throughout the series, usually in subtle ways, that this may be by design. In ‘The True Test’ in Season Five, Bayliss and Lewis are called in to investigate the brutal stabbing of a black freshman at a Baltimore prep school. When the headmaster tells Bayliss that the victim was one of three black students, Bayliss says: “Congratulations. Now you have two.” When the headmaster deflects that there’s no racial motivation, Bayliss follows up with: “How many white students have you had killed recently?”

The prep school does everything possible to hamper the investigation into the student’s death, because they are protecting a senior (Elijah Wood) who is the son of a powerful Baltimore judge (Judge Aandahl played by St. Elsewhere veteran Sagan Lewis was another recurring character.) The investigation eventually plays out with the teenager confessing his responsibility but his mother, who knows how dangerous he is, continues to protect him. Though we never learn how it plays out, the implication is clear: this young black man from modest circumstances life is irrelevant to that of a white teenager.

Unlike Law and Order, where by far the lion’s share of the criminals were white rich people, a fair percentage of the criminals — and the victims — were African Americans and other minorities. This was inevitable given the show’s setting, but it was still something that network TV had never seen before and really hasn’t seen since. Race may not have been referred to directly as much as so many of the cast wanted it to be, but it came up far more often than it has even in series run by African American showrunners. I don’t think its much of an exaggeration that there is more real discussion of what race means to America in the average season of Homicide then in the entirety of Shondaland’s body of work. This may be by design. Olivia Pope and Annelyse Keating are supposed to be strong black women who can make the powerful quake. But that is only a situational basis. When it comes to dealing with the symptomatic problems of race in every aspect of America, they are unequipped to deal with it.

The characters in Homicide aren’t any more equipped either — but they were more than willing to express how inadequate the system was in relation to them and white America. I will illustrate this by discussing three of their most thought provoking — and genuinely unsettling — episodes.

Near the end of Season Three in the episode telling titled ‘Colors’ Pembleton and Bolander are called in to investigate the murder of a Turkish exchange student. He and a friend were going to a party but went to the wrong address and the homeowner shot him. The owner is Jim Bayliss, Tim’s cousin.

The fact that Frank is Tim’s partner does change his investigation one iota. He questions Jim twice, first friendly, the second time far more aggressively. He picks up the discrepancies between Jim’s story, the student’s friend and Jim’s wife. The deeper he digs, the more he thinks there might have been a racial motivation to this crime. That said, there is a real possibility that this investigation would have been quietly disposed of had there not been the possibility of an international incident and the mother’s outrage.

The investigation brings out the worst in Tim. He yells at Frank constantly, and in one of the most memorable moments in series history, pounds on the reflecting glass partition outside the box until it shatters. He degrades everybody, from Mary to Danvers to Gee, and we seriously spend much of the time watching the episode wondering if the gap between the two is irrevocable. He refuses to believe the worst in his cousin, and the viewer wants to believe Jim too. That night, however, he is hosing off the blood of the dead boy on his balcony. “Who’d thought their guts were the same color as are?” Jim says this so casually the impact is almost missed.

The grand jury that follows was something I didn’t process when I first saw the episode — I didn’t realize that everybody on the case, from Danvers to the ME to even Frank — seemed to be trying to deliberately lead the jury not to indict. But I never forgot the end result, because it’s one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen on TV. When the grand jury returns deciding not to indict, the courtroom bursts into applause.

Back in the squad Frank is very clear about what happened: “These good people applauded the death of a child. How many of those people you think would have clapped if it had been a white child who was shot?” And he is just as clear about Jim’s own part in it: “Jim is worse than a Klansman because at least in their white sheets, they’re recognizable. But your cousin’s brand of bigotry is much more frightening because, like still waters, it runs deep. He doesn’t even see it himself.” In this simple statement, Frank may have reached a conclusion that gives a very accurate position of so much of white America, then and now.

In the middle of Season Five, Yaphet Kotto wrote the first of three teleplays for Homicide ‘Narcissus’. The episode deals with an investigation into the African Revival Movement, an organization run by a former Baltimore policeman now calling himself Burundi Robinson. Robinson is a community organizer concentrating on improving the lives of African Americans in Baltimore. The police become involved after the murder of Kenya Merchant and the fugitive runs into the ARM. (There is constant police interference in this investigation which I may have gone into a previous article. While it is relevant to the episode, for this piece I will concentrate elsewhere.)

A member of the ARM who has fallen out with Robinson explains why Kenya was murdered: Robinson ordered the killing because Kenya had learned that he was sleeping with most of the female members. “Some of the kids you see walking around there, they’re his.” It is telling that when Giardello hears about this, he is initially reluctant to pursue Robinson, seeing it as another example of bringing down a powerful black man. But as the investigation unfolds and it is increasingly interfered with from on high, Giardello finds himself pursuing it.

When the Baltimore PD comes to arrest Robinson, the residents of the ARM begin throwing rocks and bottles at the cops. Only the intervention of Pembleton stops a full-blown assault on the building. Gee eventually hears there are orders to take Robinson out and ends up going into the building to confront Robinson.

Robinson then tells him why he resigned the department: twenty-five years earlier, he was partnered with now Deputy Commissioner James Harris. They made a drug bust, and when they checked it out of evidence before the trial, it was baking soda. Harris has sold the drugs back to the dealer. With IA circling, Harris convinced Robinson to do ‘damage control’ — that one of them would take the blame and the other would go back to work. Robinson’s fate in the department was determined by a coin toss.

Did this alter Robinson’s point of view: “Where’s our place in the world, Al? We’re either a Michael Jordan or an O.J. Simpson, godhead or pariah…so we have to look after ourselves.” When Gee brings up Kenya Merchant, Robinson says in resignation: ‘My family’s gone.” Not long after that, he sends all of the women and children out of the building and locks the door behind Al.

For hours, the situation is monitored, with the brass itching to take Robinson out. Then QRT says there’s no movement in the building. When the cops raid the building and enter the basement, they find Robinson and every male member of the organization dead in a mass suicide.

The most haunting moment of the episode comes in the last scene. We cut to a white husband and wife watching the story unfold on the news. The husband changes the channel on the TV twice until he finds a nature show. You couldn’t come up with a better metaphor for how little white America cares about the lives and deaths of black America than that last scene.

Our nation has been struggling with slavery and its repercussions ever since the Civil War ended. Movies and TV have occasionally dealt with the subject, but I don’t think network TV ever dealt with the affects throughout generations than in the sixth season episode: ‘Sins of the Father.”

Meldrick Lewis (Johnson) and Paul Falsone (Jon Seda) are called in to investigate a hanging death. It becomes clear that the victim, Martin Ridenour a wealthy businessman was hung by somebody else. Furthermore, he was whipped, beaten and force to dress himself. “You know, fifty years ago if this had happened to a young black man in Memphis we’d call it a lynching,” the M.E. says. She’s more right than she knows.

From the start Meldrick, who is known to brush off even the bloodiest murder, is unsettled by this case. It doesn’t help matter that when he meets the victim’s widow, he sees what only can be considered the most openly shared display of Confederate memorabilia — all of whom were Martin’s distant ancestors. Meldrick is so unsettled by this that he insists that he and Falsone visit a Baltimore church that was a transit point on the Underground Railroad.

The investigation eventually leads to a student named Dennis Rigby, whose childhood bedroom reveals a massive display of black power and heritage memorabilia. Meldrick is convinced that there is a link between the two crimes, but Giardello and Pembleton disagree. “The murder takes place in the here and now,” Gee said. But when Pembleton learns the name of the victim, he makes a connection between a story his grandmother told him growing up about a white bounty hunter named Patty Ridenour, Martin’s distant descendant. She was a boogeyman for his grandmother, and she passed down that fear in terrifying stories to Frank growing up. (“Grandmother was something of a sadist,” he acknowledges.

The police file a search warrant for Rigby but can’t find him. Lewis eventually does in a hidden room in the Rigby house — a measure straight out of how freed slaves were hidden before and during the Civil War.

Arrested Rigby freely confessed to his part in Ridenour’s death. But his motive is not rage or jealousy — “it’s history” as Meldrick puts it. Rigby’s great-great-great-grandfather was a free black in Southern Baltimore. He saved $400 in sailor’s wages and bought a huge tract of land. Patty Ridenour — who we learn went out of her way to capture free blacks and sell them into slavery — took Rigby’s ancestor prisoner and did just that. When Rigby learned that Ridenour had just closed a $20 million dollar deal for his investment firm, he was enraged at his success. “Knowing what it was built on,” he tells Meldrick.

Despite the empathy Lewis shows Rigby, Homicide does not argue that the murder was justifiable. What the stories of Rigby and Ridenour clearly invoke is how slavery built up the success of white Americans for generations while crippling African Americans for as long. Ridenour is a millionaire; Rigby lives in poverty. The situation is not directly Ridenour’s fault, but he clearly benefited from the crimes of his ancestor.

The episode ends, like so many do, at the Waterfront, the bar Meldrick owns. But unlike so many other cases, he can not shake this off. Falsone makes several half-hearted efforts to cheer up his partner. “Leave it alone,” is all Meldrick will say. It’s one of the only times in the series we see Meldrick in despair. He may move on from this case, but it’s never going to go away.

In none of these cases, even when the crimes at the center of them are resolved, to the writers of Homicide pretend that the problems they have exposed are. They are, like all the other emotional baggage they carry with every case, the weights they carry. Homicide may never have dealt with race the way some of its cast may have wanted it to but its hard to imagine any series on the air — broadcast, cable or streaming, even involving some of the creators behind the show’s later work — ever dealing with it as well as this show did. Like with everything else with Homicide, the series never posed easy answers. But you have to give them credit for asking the questions at all.

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David B Morris

David B Morris

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After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.