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7 Questions with 61st Street star Courtney B. Vance: ‘We have to shine the light and turn the cameras on’
The Emmy Award winning actor Courtney B. Vance talks to us about his tense new drama 61st Street, police brutality and the continuing racial divides in America.
When you see Courtney B. Vance’s name on a cast sheet for a TV show or movie, it’s a solid guarantee that it’s going to be worth your time to watch it.
From his award-winning and unforgettable performance as Johnnie Cochran in The People v OJ Simpson to HBO’s acclaimed Lovecraft Country, Vance picks his projects wisely.
His latest TV series, the pulsating thriller 61st Street, finds Vance taking on the lead role of Franklin Roberts, a lawyer who believes he has one last chance to “make a difference” with his life.
Roberts takes on the case of a young black athlete who goes on the run from police after he’s caught up in a drug bust gone wrong. The enthralling series highlights the divides that still run deep in the city of Chicago and shines a bright light on a broken legal system.
1. You must get sent a lot of scripts – why did you want to get involved in 61st Street?
First of all, some. Not a lot. Some, and I’m grateful for them all. They sent me a couple of episodes to read. And I met with Peter Moffat the creator and J. David Shanks who is the boots on the ground showrunner in Chicago. It was speaking to the two of them and their passion. It was on faith.
2. What was your first reaction on reading the script?
I loved all the characters. They were so dense, layered, and rich. It’s so dense and layered that people can put themselves in there and say, "What if it was me?" I did that personally with my character and the boys Moses and Bentley. My parents put me in a wonderful position in Detroit Country Day School, which allowed me to excel and go to Harvard and then to Yale. And at any point that could have been derailed. With young people it’s always a prayer. When they leave the house you have no idea what will happen that day.
3. Did you base Franklin on anyone in your own life?
Franklin is a mixture of people. He is so many men. Like everyone is in this show. We have to tell our children when they leave the house that if they encounter a police officer, this is what you do. Keep your mouth shut, your eyes down, let them have it, let them be right, just make sure you come home.
It’s not the same as a white child. You teach them that police are your friend. We can’t do that. It’s very unfortunate. We should be able to. Their motto and mission is to protect and preserve. It shouldn’t be about colour, but it is. And until we can acknowledge that and change that, we’ll continue to have the problems we have today between African Americans and police officers.
4. We see at the start of the show your character Franklin isn’t the greatest lawyer – why was it important to show that?
It leaves you somewhere to go. It shows that he is struggling like we all are struggling. And for Moses this man doesn’t present a great deal of confidence. He’s out of his depth. That’s what he asks his wife, ‘have I made a difference?’ This is his opportunity to make a difference before his time is through. He chooses to take that opportunity, no matter what the cost is. And the cost is great to him.
5. You said you could see parallels with your own childhood – has much changed for young black people in America?
The progress is we can see it now. There were no cameras when my parents were growing up. There was no hope if you got caught in the system. That’s why black parents were harder on kids than the police were. They knew if the police came, there was nothing they could do. If they stepped up, they would kill me, burn the house down and kill all my relations.
African American folks, the fact that they still had hope despite the circumstances and the way everybody treated them, it’s a miracle that they didn’t all just kill themselves. And all just jump into the water and let the sharks get them.
When I look at the trials and tribulations that we have, I have to look back in order to stand strong. If the Montgomery Bus Boycott could stand firm and still get themselves together for a year, without phones, computers and still schedule pick-ups… I can do it.
Whatever I’m tasked with, and whatever my children are tasked with, we can do it. This is lightweight compared to what our parents, grandparents and great grandparents went through. Lightweight.
6. How important was it that you portrayed the spirit and reality of Chicago?
It’s a unique city because of that lake. The whole idea of going to the left or the right. The whole idea is so crazy…At what point is race that important and frightening that people will live in less desirable places because they don’t want to live in the South Side of Chicago.
It’s a unique city because it’s a super-segregated city, like Kansas City and Detroit. They are cities where when the great migration happened, black folks were herded in one area of town, which was the South Side. And now we are left to deal with the repercussions of that.
It is a city like no other. But it is a segregated town. And once we deal with that, the whole country will be in a better place.
7. How important do you think it is for TV shows to highlight the reality of policing and the legal system?
The example I have is that if there were white young men being killed or injured by police officers regularly, it would be dealt with right away. There wouldn’t be an issue. But because it’s black young men, there’s a feeling that it’s our problem, we did something. You are questioning the integrity of the police – how can you do that?
But if it was white boys and girls killed on a regular basis, there would be no problem. When a white young child is killed, they’re on the back of a milk carton and there is an Amber Alert. But it takes 150 black children before they realise they have a problem. That’s what we’re saying with Black Lives Matter – they really don’t. It takes 150 lives before it becomes a nationwide problem.
We live with that. We have that it in our spirit. And that’s why we continually have to put it in front of America. Because America won’t do it themselves. Just look at the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King had to push that non-violence programme in front of people so the cameras could be turned on innocent men, women and children and people could say, "Oh that’s terrible". It had been terrible for the last century. It was just that we had the cameras turned on.
There are cameras and we barely got justice with George Floyd. Barely. They tried to wiggle out of that one. But we had the cameras turned on. We have to continually shine the light and turn the cameras on.
How can I watch 61st Street?
Watch 61st Street on AMC, Tuesdays at 9pm.
AMC is exclusive to BT TV customers.
Watch AMC on BT TV channel 332/381 HD. Catch up on AMC shows on the BT Player and BT TV app.