Focus in Blue – Police in Contemporary American Cinema

The depiction of law enforcement in contemporary American cinema utilizes the “Blue Focus” compelling the camera to empathize and forgive white, male police despite the legal misdeeds that transpire onscreen. The result shapes the audience’s attitudes towards the relationship between law enforcement and minorities in society. Films featuring African-American actors in positions of legal authority expose Hollywood’s penchant for “high concept racism” as studios proliferate hypocritical and racist views of minorities in exchange for increased box office revenue.

Law enforcement first gained popularity onscreen through Mack Sennett’s silent comedies, The Keystone Cops[i]. The films lambasted the fictional police department’s inability to either solve crime or apprehend suspects. The harmless officer’s popularity came at a time when urban police forces were rife with corruption paving the way for the bootlegging empires of the prohibition era. The Great Depression instilled Americans with a distrust of both corporations and government institutions as audiences came to identify with the self-made man who rose through the ranks of a criminal syndicate. Gangster anti-heroes such as Scarface (Hawkes, 1932) and Little Caesar (LeRoy, 1931) became huge box office draws and police merely served as minor characters who arrived in the last real to double cross and murder the protagonist.

By the 1940’s and 50’s, police returned to the spotlight in the form of the tireless detective haunting the dark streets of the big city. An allegory for returning GIs jaded by the horror and senselessness of war, the film noir detective tows the line of truth while the world around him crumbles with injustice. The tormented film noir cop gave way to the romantic loner of 1960’s police dramas. Cool and trendy, the leading men appeared ripped from the pages of a fashion magazine. Depthless exercises in machismo[ii], these visually striking films created an indelible template for future directors such as Michael Mann where style triumphs over substance.

Critics of Blaxploitation cite low production value and over-stylized 1970’s fashion sensibilities as missteps, but fail to take into consideration the liberating force these films provided for urban African-Americans. Hollywood’s traditional racial framework has been flipped on its head and one dimensional, subservient butlers and maids are transformed into heroes while demonized white police exist are minor supporting characters. For those unfamiliar with the dark side of law enforcement, the thought of cops operating as a criminal organization seems unthinkable but, for the marginalized citizens of the inner city it’s an all too familiar image.

Across 110st Street (Shear, 1972) is perhaps the best Blaxploitation film of its era, certainly the most earnest in its depiction of criminals and police alike. Captain Mattelli is an aging homicide detective who subsidizes his meager income with payoffs from Harlem drug dealers. Corrupt, brutal, and racist, Mattelli attempts to redeem himself in the eyes of the virtuous African-American, Lieutenant Pope. The film calls into age old question, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Who guards the guardians?). However, the “Blue Focus” is executed to full effect, coercing the audience to sympathize, rather than condemn Captain Mattelli despite the revelations about his nefarious behavior.

The New American film movement of the 1970’s created icons whose catchphrases became part of the lexicon. The success of these films paved the way for the movie franchise and future blockbusters. Ironically, these characters were often bigoted cops who justify their hatred of minorities with the belief that people of color are criminals waiting to be apprehended. 1971 saw the release of two block buster films, The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971) and Dirty Harry (Siegal, 1971). Produced for meager budgets, $1.8[iii] and $4 million[iv] respectively, both went on to gross over $30 million each in theatrical release.

Dirty Harry Callahan suffer no fools. His reputation as a racist and a man of violence is tolerated by supervisors because of his success at solving homicides. Harry uses a .44 magnum revolver, “The most powerful handgun in the world,”[v] he warns a fleeing suspect. An obvious phallic metaphor, the gun represents European’s historic sexual brutality and dominance over indigenous people of color. A modern day version of Hernan Cortez[vi] and his iron canon, Harry pursues suspects through the city with no thought of the carnage and destruction he leaves in his wake.

Popeye Doyle, the hero of The French Connection, counsels his partner, “Never trust a nigger.”[vii] Throughout the film, Doyle terrorizes innocent patrons of African-American establishments and represents a general threat to the civil rights and peace of the inner city. His behavior is rationalized through the “Blue Focus” as necessary in pursuit of international drug smugglers. The film is an unintentional allegory for white society’s disregard for the welfare of people of color.In both films, Hollywood has returned blacks to their rightful place on the screen as junkies, pimps, and thieves and white audience’s enthusiastic embrace of these movies speaks poorly of American society as a whole.

Police films rode the wave of hard body, blockbuster cinema in the 1980’s with hits such as, Diehard (McTiernan, 1988) and Cobra (Cosmatos, 1986). Superficial, gratuitously violent vehicles for egotistical stars who prance across the screen shirtless, these films perfectly reflect the macho aesthetic of the Reagan era. Producers like Jon Peters and Peter Gruber created a cinematic culture of excess where non-linear plots and character development take a back seat to explosions and body count. The high concept aesthetic includes overt racial overtones that cater to white audience’s expectations of negative stereotypes. Commercial projects crafted for sequalization, blockbuster cop films of the 80’s were carefully honed financial investments employing market saturation for maximum return.

Released in 1988, Diehard spawned four successive films and a cadre of video games. Originally intended as a project for Frank Sinatra[viii], who turned down the role, the lead eventually went to TV star, Bruce Willis. An archetypical “David versus Goliath” tale, Diehard incorporates topical 80’s themes such as corporate greed and divorce. The Lethal Weapon franchise promised to break new ground by providing a major role for an African-American police officer, but the whitewashed pairing only appeals to pseudo-liberals superficial tolerance of blacks. African-American detective, Roger Murtaugh, is a neutered family man who lacks to the virility to detract from Mel Gibson’s hyper masculine lead. The filmic castration of the black character is rooted in white American’s fear of African male sexuality that can be cinematically traced by to The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915).

The birth of the “New Black Cinema” of the 80’s and 90’s further illuminates studios glib attitudes towards black stars. Cop films such as Bad Boys (Bay, 1995) and Beverly Hills Cop (Brest, 1984) cast African-American actors in the lead, but are little more than modern day minstrel shows. Helmed by white directors, these films prove that, unlike their white counterparts, black actors must be comedians first and law enforcement second. In Hollywood, a black detective’s skills are tempered by his ability to make the audience laugh.

The emergence of affordable technology that permits independent filmmakers to operate outside the exclusory Hollywood system finally arrived in the beginning of the 2005[ix]. Fruitvale Station (Coogler, 2013) imagines the final day of Oscar Grant[x], prior to his death at the hands of police. Director Ryan Coogler dismisses the “Blue Focus” by placing the pathos with the victim instead of his uniformed killers. Despite a criminal past, Grant is portrayed as fully dimensional human being with dreams and aspirations beyond his immediate environment. The sobering revelation is the confusion and disorder police operate under that led to the death of an innocent man. Produced independently for a $900,000[xi], the film bears little resemblance to the torrent of stories about gritty street life told from the viewpoint of upper class white screenwriters.

The film industry has exposed itself as inherently racist through a history of perpetuating negative stereotypes. Blind to the depth of their own prejudice, producers operate on the financial principal that audiences have no desire to see the banality of working class life, preferring instead to follow the trials of sadistic black pimps and their heroin addicted whores. Even with pretense of progressive filmmaking, the casting of African-American actors as police requires the interjection of comedy to ease the fears of white audiences terrified at seeing minorities in positions of social authority. Through the use of the “Blue Focus”, Hollywood endlessly presents white cops in a positive light, even when operating outside the law. But, as an ever widening pool of corruption seeps from the poorest neighborhoods of the inner city into the suburbs, eroding public confidence in law enforcement may wind up on screen.



[i] “Keystone Comedy.” A Short History of Keystone. Web. 10 May 2016. < Projed/History.html>.


[ii] “Bullitt.” Bullitt. Web. 10 May 2016. <>.


[iii] “Dirty Harry Box Office.” The Numbers. Web. 10 May 2016. <>.


[iv] “The French Connection Box Office.” The Numbers. Web. 10 May 2016. <>.


[v] “Dirty Harry (1971) Movie Script | SS.” Springfield! Springfield! Accessed May 12, 2016.


[vi] “Hernán Cortés.” A&E Networks Television. Web. 15 May 2016. <án-cortés-9258320#conquered-the-aztecs>


[vii] “Quote of the Day.” French Connection Quotes. Web. 10 May 2016. <>.


[viii] “Screenwriting Tip Of The Day by William C. Martell – Die Hard Analysis.” Screenwriting Tip Of The Day by William C. Martell – Die Hard Analysis. Web. 10 May 2016. <>.


[ix] “Happy Birthday, 5D! Canon’s Groundbreaking DSLR Line Turns 10 Today.” Peta Pixels. 2015. Web. 10 May 2016. <>.


[x] “The Killing of Oscar Grant III: A Timeline of Events.” San Jose Mercury News. Web. 10 May 2016. <>.


[xi] “Fruitvale Station Box Office.” The Numbers. Web. 10 May 2016. <>.

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