I recently watched six seasons of an American detective drama, each season having ten episodes. The series is called “Bosch” because our star detective is one Hieronymous Bosch, called “Harry” by his colleagues and friends. And yes, his name does invite us to recall what we know about the painter with the same name. Or to learn something about him and his art. And, in one episode, a famous Bosch painting by figures in solving the crime. The man playing Bosch is intense, taciturn, slow to express or exhibit the emotions, and fiendishly clever in figuring out who the “bad guys” are. Divorced from his wife, he stays in touch because they both love their late adolescent daughter who moves into her early twenties before the series ends. Bosch plays it close to the chest at work and in his personal relationships, though we know he feels things deeply.
Though Bosch is white as is his lesbian captain, many characters are played by black actors, especially male ones. Bosch’s fellow detectives, street cops, the Chief of Police governing a huge force– all played by black actors. So, however, are some of the criminals, suspects, PIs, ex-cons and general bad guys. When I found myself having a problem “telling them apart,” I first named this confusion for what it is: I was drifting dangerously close to “they all look alike” about the black faces on my screen, surely a racialized response if I ever saw one. So I stopped watching the episodes, took stock of my knee-jerk responses, and began to think about the other cop shows I watch.
Truth be told, I’ve spent a lot of late afternoons looking at re-runs of American police dramas–“Blue Bloods,” “NCIS New Orleans,” “Law and Order,” “Law and Order: SVU,” CSI Miami”–and I won’t keep listing. Before I started watching “Bosch,” I’d begun to be uncomfortable with how often the plot centered around white police, assisted by a token black or female or Latinx helper. I was growing even more uncomfortable with how often the offending criminal was black and was not always treated nicely by law-enforcement officers.
So what my streaming of “Bosch” has caused me to think about it this: The director seems to have decided to flood the screen with black faces playing all possible kinds of roles in the unfolding story of crime detection and personal vulnerabilities. By doing that, he not only caused me to face up to my own racial response to actors’ faces but, importantly, to have to see that black characters come in all different packages. So they mimic us white people who do the same, of course.
The added and unexpected bonus of watching all the ins and outs of Bosch’s maneuverings to solve the latest crime wrinkle has pretty much “spoiled” my late afternoon escapist TV watching since now I notice even more quickly and painfully just how much most such programs reinforce white ideas of what black people–especially black men– are like. If I am forced to find another way to end my afternoons, that will be a step in the right direction as I continue to unearth and face the deeply embedded racism in my own psyche and brain.