For this project I explored the representation of African-Americans in crime investigation television. Instead of focusing on African-Americans’ portrayals as victims or suspects, I chose to analyze the image of African-American detectives, Odafin Tutuola (Ice-T) and Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan) from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. I chose CSI: Crime Scene Investigation mainly because of its popularity and recognition. “On Friday, 6 October 2000, the pilot episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) premiered on CBS. It debuted to 17.3 million television viewers and was ranked eighth on Nielsen’s weekly top 10 television programs (Armstrong quoted in Cavender & Deutsch 2010, 67).” As a nationally ranked and syndicated show, CSI is still on air even over a decade later. Likewise, the critically acclaimed NBC show, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) is also widely recognized. Fourteen time Emmy nominated producer Dick Wolf was quoted stating that, “Since ‘SVU’ went on the air, it has been a really profoundly influential show in terms of reporting of sex crimes, in terms of reporting both child abuse and elder abuse, a whole range of topics.” (Tulsa World, 2012)
I researched this topic in particular because of how the representation of such individuals can affect society and how important it is that we know exactly how they are being portrayed. According to one of the scholarly articles I discovered, “Stereotype formation is one of the major consequences of media cultivation” (Tamborini & Mastro 2005, 640). How we view African-Americans in the criminal investigation field is largely altered by how popular television series portray those characters. Those authors also go on to state that African-Americans in particular are “under-represented and stereotyped in their portrayals and have typically appeared in minor roles” (641). This coincides with Carlen Lavigne’s article where she states that the family dynamic within criminal investigation television is as follows: “…A white male in charge of a crime lab, his white female second-in-command, and assorted underling ‘‘children’’— some of whom may belong to minorities.” Thus, leading to a “father knows best” narrative base (Lavigne 2009, 385). In contrast, Phillipa Gates argues, “the black detective of contemporary film tends to be isolated from a black community and family and, therefore, from potential issues of race and culture” (Gates 2004, 28). Through my research I have found that my evidence supports these arguments in that Detective Warrick Brown and Fin Tutuola, although slightly different in their individual portrayals and visibility in each episode, both maintain a stereotypical African-American detective character type in fulfilling a “child” role in the family dynamic and as an underdeveloped character, maintaining a peripheral and largely subordinate role within their respective shows.
Context and Methods
CSI has switched out many of the main characters that were part of the first couple of seasons, namely Detective Warrick Brown. With that said, my research comes from the first season of CSI, in which all characters are introduced and the “family dynamic” of the unit is established. Detective Gil Grissom, a constant source of advice for Detective Brown, fills the role of “father” in this unit, Catherine Willows the “female second-in-command” and Warrick fulfilling the minority child role. In SVU, Captain Don Cragen plays the commanding figure in this unit; Olivia Benson is the white female lead. Detective Fin Tutuola is introduced in the first episode of the second season. Airing on NBC, their network site contains short biographies on each character. Detective Tutuola is described as adding, “a unique sense of humor and undercover investigative experience, making him a formidable match for any partner” (NBCUniversal Media, LLC)
I chose three articles for my paper. Other than the fact that these three articles all discuss minority representation in mass media, I chose them specifically because of the information they provided me. As they all share a common goal in analyzing African-American representation, I was able to obtain an insight into different examples and statistics that I would not be able to research on my own. Always a Partner in Crime was a rare find that explored the representation of African-American detectives, much like my own project. The author’s history of past representation of African-American detectives in film was helpful in providing background information on how far mass media has changed in its portrayal of black detectives. Namely, Philippa Gates’s claims that “the black detective of contemporary film tends to be isolated from a black community and family and therefore, from potential issues of race and culture.” She goes on to agree with Lavigne’s article in her work stating, “the black man can be put into ‘protective custody’ of a white man,” thus holding him at the periphery while the white man occupies the center (28).
Of the remaining two articles, The Color of Crime and the Court: A Content Analysis of Minority Respresentation on Television is the Mastro and Tamborini scholarly article mentioned earlier. This piece provided information on how “African-Americans have been under-represented and stereotyped in their portrayals and have typically appeared in minor roles” (641). African Americans in Film and Television takes this sentiment one step further by describing the representation of African-Americans as largely negative, one where African-Americans are “one-dimensional in their portrayals… usually frozen images, often incapable of growth, change, innovation, or transformation” (52).
For each show, I viewed six, roughly 45 minute long, episodes that included Brown or Tutuola in its’ main storyline. I based this selection off the episode summaries given for each episode on iTunes for CSI and Netflix for SVU. In searching for scholarly articles to support my paper further, I looked in the Communication and Mass Media Complete database. I vetted these articles by using the search limiters on the Communication and Mass Media Complete database to show strictly peer-reviewed pieces. Upon discovering the scholarly articles I wished to use, I double-checked their validity as peer reviewed articles by using the website www.ulrichsweb.com that was given to us in class.
Off the bat, I noticed that Warrick Brown appears to hold a more prominent role than Fin Tutuola in terms of visibility. Even when looking for episodes to view, Tutuola was included in the episode summaries around one episode per season, whereas I was able to find episodes about Brown all in the first season. I naturally hypothesized that Brown would assume a more developed character type than Fin but was surprised to find that the frequent visibly of Warrick Brown’s character over Tutuola’s did not provide for a more well-rounded character.
Within the “family dynamic,” Warrick and Fin both embody the minority child role. Within the families however, Fin portrays a more rebellious child-like role in his interactions with Captain Cragen. However, he is still wise to come to Cragen when he needs help. In season six, Tutuola is shot and put on leave but insists on rectifying a wrong he committed five years ago while working as an undercover narcotics agent. In this episode he goes against the captain’s wishes to stay on leave and rest; however, he does not hesitate to come to Captain Cragen when he needs further assistance in his investigation. On the other hand, in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, newcomer Sara Sidle is quick to point out to Grissom, “Oh Warrick, your favorite CSI” (“Sex, Lies, and Larvae”). In many ways Brown represents a golden-child role in how well he adopts Grissom’s methods and sayings. In episode three, Catherine wants to discontinue the investigation because the evidence will put a young boy behind bars and Warrick says to her that they “got to follow the evidence, even if we don’t like where it takes us” (“Crate and Burial”). This echoes many of Gil Grissom’s favorite sentiments about evidence being the tell-all truth and that they should “chase the lie ‘til it leads to the truth’” (“I-15 Murders” quoted in Cavender & Deutsch 2007, 75). This portrayal of their two African-American detectives in such a subordinate role further supports evidence that they are peripheral in their roles in comparison to their Caucasian co-workers on the show, and in Gates terms, “space is related to power, and those at the center – white – have power, and those on the periphery – ‘other’– do not” (25).
Continuing with Gates, a large aspect of his argument centers on how black detectives in film have developed to no longer cast aside the black detective’s significance but as mentioned earlier, simply “place the black character in a white context.” Gates suggests that, “for all intents and purposes, this strategy basically ignores the fact that the character is black” (26). I found it interesting that he would conclude contemporary media to have come to the point where “race is often relegated to being a non issue… and the hero could be played just as easily by a white star as he is by a black one” (28) when my evidence seems to point to the contrary, in which race is indeed a factor of characterization and within the plot of some episodes.
The first scene that Tutuola appears in features him wearing baggy pants, an oversized jacket, and a doo-rag to the station. (“Wrong is Right”) He proceeds to try and get the attention of Captain Cragen, only to be ignored. Tutuola is assigned to the Special Victims Unit as a replacement of Detective Monique Jefferies, the sole African-American detective on the unit, filling in her role as the “minority child” within the family dynamic. It is immediately evident in this scene that the portrayal of Fin is going to be put in a more stereotypical light of playing on his race. Tutuola acknowledges his race as a conflicting matter in more than one instance in episode four of season three. When confronted by a Harlem resident and accused of negligence because of their color, he proceeds to get in the accuser’s face and tells him to “save that for someone else. We’re from the same place and we’re the same color.” Later in the episode, the rebellious side of him arises in a scene where he argues with Captain Cragen and angrily responds, “no matter what you say Captain, you’re not black, and you’re not from the hood” (“Rooftop”).
Likewise, Detective Warrick Brown, although presented in a much more professional attire than Tutuola when he is first introduced, seems to compensate for his dress by repeatedly using curse words in his speech. The inclusion of race is again exhibited when Warrick is outside a judge’s house and confronted by police officers at gunpoint. Although he yells that he is an officer as well, they refuse to listen until the judge comes outside and tells them to put their guns away. Their excuse being that they had received a “call from a neighbor about a black man outside your house” (“Pilot”). If it were as Gates argues, a difference in “his background, attitude, and class” (27), race would not be mentioned in these confrontations and the character could easily be replaced with a Caucasian actor; however, that is not the case.
Further proving that they are underdeveloped characters is the lack of background information provided throughout the episodes I watched. In the case of Fin, it takes a whole season after his character is introduced to learn he has a son and was originally from Harlem, New York City before moving to Brooklyn. These moments of insights into his background are only relevant in accordance with the episodes plot. For instance, the episode in which we learn the most about Fin the most is “Rooftop” in which the crimes occur in Harlem and one of Fin’s old friends is involved. His own co-workers are unaware of all his background information until this episode. This is later proven once more, three seasons later when co-worker, Olivia Benson states, “the only family he’s ever mentioned is his son” (“Haunted”). In standard episodes, Tutuola has minimal lines and appears to only chime in with one or two lines when the opportunity arises in group conversation. This coincides more closely with the Dates and Mascaro’s article on “African Americans in Film and Television,” in which they conclude that one of many black media stereotypes is that they are “one dimensional in their portrayals of African-Americans” (52). Further evidence supporting this idea can be found by simply looking at the description given by the network itself on the character. By describing him as a “formidable match for any partner,” they are essentially resigning him to a character that is doomed to be underdeveloped and easily replaceable, much like Detective Jefferies, the officer Tutuola replaces.
Similar to this, Warrick Brown’s only substantial background information is that he has a gambling addiction. This gambling addiction seems to appear only when it provides conflict within the show, not really adding any depth to Brown’s character. In the episode, “Sex, Lies, and Larvae” his lies for failure to appear in court are caught by Grissom, thus creating a difficult dilemma for the main white male, instead of a substantial affect on Brown.
World-renowned speaker, Malcolm X believed that “the media is the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” By not simply casting the black detectives in a role that can easily be replaced with a white detective as contemporary entertainment is inclined to do these days according to Gates, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Law and Order: SVU force viewers to recognize the characters of Warrick Brown and Odafin Tutuola for their race. However, this, while helping to curb stereotypes against these characters in particular, feed a larger stereotype of a peripheral role as a “child” to the greater family dynamic that Lavigne acknowledges within the show, thus putting these characters in a underdeveloped and powerless character type. This can cause complications in that “media images may serve to reinforce and validate learned stereotypes, thereby indicating norms for the treatment of certain groups” (Mastro & Tamborini 641).
1) Cavender, G., and S. K. Deutsch. “CSI and Moral Authority: The Police and Science.” Crime, Media, Culture 3.1 (2007): 67-81. Print.
2) Sherrow, Rita. “Dick Wolf Talks about 300th ‘SVU'” Tulsa World. World Publishing Co., 23 Oct. 2012. Web. 08 Dec. 2012.
3) Tamborini R, Mastro D. THE COLOR OF CRIME AND THE COURT: A CONTENT ANALYSIS OF MINORITY RESPRESENTATION ON TELEVISION. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, September 2000; 77(3): 639-653.
4) Lavigne, Carlen. “Death Wore Black Chiffon: Sex and Gender in CSI1.” Canadian Review of American Studies 39.4 (2009): 383-98. Print.
5) Gates, Philippa. “Always a Partner in Crime: Black Masculinity in the Hollywood Detective Film.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 32.1 (2004): 20-29. Print.
6) Dates J, Mascaro T. African Americans in Film and Television. Journal Of Popular Film & Television, Summer2005 2005; 33(2): 50-54.
7) “Ice-T | Detective Odafin Tutuola.” Ice-T Bio. NBCUniversal Media, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.
1) CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
Season One Episode One, “Pilot”
Season One Episode Two, “Cool Change”
Season One Episode Three, “Crate and Burial”
Season One Episode Five, “Friends and Lovers”
Season One Episode Six, “Who Are You?”
Season One Episode Ten, “Sex, Lies, and Larvae”
2) Law and Order: Special Victims Unit
Season Two Episode 1, “Wrong is Right”
Season Two Episode 2, “Honor”
Season Three, Episode Four, “Rooftop”
Season Three, Episode Fourteen, “Counterfeit”
Season Four, Episode Eighteen, “Careless”
Season Six, Episode Ten, “Haunted”