Blouses, Bloodstains and Bowties:
Race and Gender on Homicide

by Joe Clark

The project is a feature article examining the unorthodox and subtle representation of race and gender on the NBC television series Homicide: Life on the Street. The series, a critical and popular success, follows a racially and sexually integrated squad of homicide detectives as they investigate murders in Baltimore, most of whose inhabitants are black. The article will show that the general sophistication seen throughout Homicide-- in cinematography, scripts, music, even opening credits-- is mirrored in more substantive issues like depictions of race and gender, where the life stories of the actors themselves play off the "fictional" life stories of the various characters.


Homicide: Life on the Street is nominally a series about murder, murderers, murder victims, cops, and medical examiners, but the show is more concerned with its unusual ensemble cast than the issues commonly found on American police dramas. Homicide rarely shows physical violence of any type, including the actual murderers its characters eventually investigate. Even murder victims aren't presented in an overly gory or sensationalistic fashion. Rather, the program uses the context of an ongoing stream of murder victims to explore the psyches of a seven-member homicide detachment-- individually, between partners, as a group, in relation to the police hierarchy, and more.

Critics have frequently identified the cast as a key element in the show's success. Focusing on the cast demonstrates that they really are something out of the ordinary because Homicide offers so much else to talk about-- the trademark jerky camera shoved right into the faces of the actors (a technique later heisted, to rather limited effect, by NYPD Blue and Traders), the quick repetition of key actions and snippets of dialogue à la martial-arts films (with the repetitions usually deriving from multiple takes), the minimalist use of music (a few stock motifs recur as dramatic undercurrents; music is otherwise limited to pop singles that tend to match the storyline eerily well) and the producers' willingness to experiment with genre (for example, one entire episode was taken up by an interrogation scene).

Just as an example of how willing even the most mainstream critics are to lionize Homicide's cast, take this Entertainment Weekly passage:

[A]nd the regular cast is still more intriguing than ever. [Andre] Braugher has been justly celebrated for his rich, risky portrayal of the flamboyant Pembleton, so it's time to give thanks to others. Like [Kyle] Secor, whose new, interestingly ugly Romanesque haircut is offset by the understated interpretation of Bayliss' dogged deductive powers; like Isabella Hofmann, whose recently promoted Capt. Megan Russert was demoted back to detective in a superlatively painful storyline; like Richard Belzer's John Munch, who has become much more than a misanthropic wiseass (he's now a fascinatingly sad, brooding misanthropic wiseass); and like Melissa Leo's Kay Howard, whose promotion to sergeant has resulted in a gratifying increase in Kay's cranky ambitiousness. Add to this the presence of first-rate semiregulars like Clayton LeBouef's stick-up-his-you-know-what Col. Barnfather; Walt MacPherson's marvelously odious, bitter new Capt. Gaffney; and current king of supporting actors, Max Perlich, as whiner-with-a-backbone Brodie, and you've got one dang fine show. I wish they'd get rid of that bar owned by Munch, Bayliss, and Lewis (Clark Johnson-- also underrated!), since it's never panned out as a comic subplot, but that's a quibble. May the Homicides never cease.

Casting choices have an impact on the characters the actors portray. Sometimes the actors' demographic combinations are improbable, but then again, truth is often stranger than fiction. Yaphet Kotto, a Jewish African-American-Canadian, plays Lt. Al Giardello, a black man whose Sicilian ancestors are frequently invoked on the show. Comedian Richard Belzer plays the wisecracking but not-entirely-unserious Det. John Munch. Clark Johnson, another African-American-Canadian, carries the role of Det. Meldrick Lewis. (The link between Johnson's life story and Lewis's will come up later.) Most partnerships cross race or sex lines: Det. Tim Bayliss (white) is partnered with Det. Frank Pembleton (black); Lewis's partner is Det. Mike Kellerman (not just white but blond). Kay's former partner, now absent from the show, was a man, Det. Beau Felton.

Of the two female leads, Hofmann has long straight blonde hair, Leo long tousled strawberry-blonde hair-- two traditional female signifiers the show deploys meaningfully and in opposition. The book on which the series is based, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon (Ivy Books, 1991), clearly states that the real-life Baltimore homicide detachment Simon studied had only one female detective, who quit soon after joining the squad; Homicide: Life on the Street's featuring two female characters may be unrealistic, but it gives the screenwriter leeway to explore gender issues in a male-dominated and stereotypically macho profession.


Let's consider a few examples of Homicide's portrayal of gender. (Here I use the term not only to mean male/female but gay/straight and all the states in-between.)


It's a testimony to the tight and even-handed writing on Homicide that issues of race are dealt with both incidentally and centrally and never seem forced. An Asian-American woman becomes the love interest of both Lewis and Bayliss, for example, and the fact that two kinds of racial divides are being crossed never comes up.

Crucially, the writers also use the physical and biographical characteristics of the actors to further the examination of race issues. For example, in an unusual series of "crossover" episodes on Homicide and on NBC's cops-and-public-defenders drama Law & Order, Pembleton and Bayliss are dispatched to Manhattan to assist in tracking down a bomber from Baltimore who blew up a subway car full of African-Americans. (The bomber, the detectives find out from survivors, was the only white person in the car.) The storyline ends on Homicide per se as Pembleton and Bayliss arrest the leader of the neo-Nazi ring of which the bomber was part. He's a large bald white man with naturally fair skin and green eyes. Det. Pembleton is a large black man with naturally dark skin and brown eyes. They are, in effect, as close to chromatic opposites of one another as the Screen Actors Guild could hope to give us, a fact that's eminently apparent during the interrogation scenes as tight headshots contrast Pembleton and the suspect. As the detectives are escorting the suspect to New York for arraignment, he suffers a fatal heart attack on an Amtrak platform, causing Pembleton to break into furious curses: Now he won't be able to see the racist suffer for his views and actions. A dead unpunished racist killer is a personal affront to Pembleton, who, as an African-American, felt personally involved in the case-- and implicated in the suspect's plan for murdering the entire black population of the U.S.

More glancingly, Russert and Giardello have a conversation at one point about his difficulty in finding a mate since his first wife died. An attractive attorney he fancies isn't returning his interest. He chalks up his loneliness, and his bad luck with the attorney, in part to the fact that a very dark-skinned black man like him can't hope to interest a lighter-skinned African-American woman. Russert, her blond hair glinting in the sun, chides Giardello for thinking such nonsense. "You don't understand," he says, and storms off, shaken. Yaphet Kotto, it should be noted, is a dark-skinned black man, and he stated in a CBC Radio interview (Kotto lives in Toronto) that he has no hope at all of starring in an erotic thriller because Hollywood executives would never cast such a dark man in that kind of menacing role.

A recent Homicide episode continues this irony of mining the actors' backgrounds as fodder for their fictional selves. While investigating a murder at a fleabag motel, Lewis, a fair-skinned black man, and Kellerman are talking about a family of illegal (Mexican) immigrants living at the motel:

Kellerman: The illegal-immigration problem in this country is staggering.

Lewis: We're in Baltimore. That's a little far north of the Rio Grande.

Kellerman: Now, don't give me that crap! My father's factory may close down because they can do the labour cheaper elsewhere.

Lewis: Hey, everybody was an immigrant at some point or another in this country, OK? Some even by choice.

Kellerman: That's deep.

Clark Johnson and his family moved to Toronto from Philadelphia when he was 15. He has dual citizenship and lives in Toronto (where he was married last year), Baltimore, and L.A. Toronto is even farther north of the Rio Grande. (In the episode preceding this one, Lewis was absent, which was explained by having him on vacation... in Toronto!) Johnson "was an immigrant by choice," but to Canada.

And as for the claim that everybody was an immigrant, aboriginal persons might well disagree. But Lewis wasn't being racist or ignorant, he was just exaggerating to shut Kellerman up, as we see later when interviews another resident, Lonny Askew, an Indian (sic):

Lewis: What's that, a teepee?

Askew: It's a sweatlodge.

Lewis: The kind they let you build in the joint, so that inmates can exercise their freedom of religion.

Askew: You got a problem with that?

Lewis: Nope. No problem at all.

This kind of hidden knowledge comes up later, as we'll see.

That entire episode must be seen as preparatory for the next one, about a nearly-all-black housing project policed by black Muslims decked out in suits (clear fictional analogues of Louis Farrakhan's bowtied Nation of Islam). Lewis and Kellerman show up to investigate and have to duck as bottles and other junk are thrown down at them by the residents. "Downtown suits only come across the boulevard when a nigger falls!" someone yells out, throwing a bottle. "I don't think we're wanted here," Kellerman says. "What do you mean 'we,' paleface?" Lewis retorts.

"There's only one way to police the Terrace-- napalm," a white "uniform" says. "Know what? That's not funny," Lewis says, pointing a finger.

"Let me handle this," Lewis says as they knock on a resident's door later. "I speak the lingo." Kellerman good-naturedly motions "whatever you say" with his hands. The Muslims spend a lot of time in the episode telling Kellerman he's unwelcome and questioning Lewis's black purity for working with him. Howard almost has to break the two up as Lewis and Kellerman quarrel back at the station.

Howard: Excuse me, do the two of you have a problem?

Lewis: No, we ain't got no problem. Just [that] one of the Muslims tried to pull the blue-eyed-white-devil thing on Mikey-- you know, one cop against the other. [Looks dead at Kellerman] Didn't work, though.

Kellerman: [Averts his eyes] Naw. No way.

Lewis and Kellerman interrogate the head of the Muslim group. After a few racist remarks from him, Kellerman storms out. Later, Lewis catches up to Kellerman in the coffee room.

Lewis: Mikey!

Kellerman: You guys going to go out, have a couple of beers?

Lewis: [Scoffs] What do you mean by that?

Kellerman: What do you think it means? I'm looking for my partner in this case, and I don't know where he is.

Lewis: I'm right here.

Kellerman: Oh, yeah? Where were you when he took a swing at me? Huh? And where are you in the box right now?

Lewis: What do you want me to say? Huh? You want me to say something to make you feel better? I'm trying to get a witness talking in here.

Kellerman: Oh, so it's just business, right?

Lewis: It's what we do! It's just what we do. If I'm talking to a guy [who] beats his kids, I tell him I beat my own kids. I'm talking to a rapist, I tell him I snatch nuns off the street.

Kellerman: OK, OK, so you don't buy this racist crap, right? Because this guy, he hates whites, he hates Jews, he hates me.

Lewis: I don't buy race-baiting from anybody. But even you got to admit that these guys have done right by Highland Terrace.

Kellerman: These guys are thugs!

Lewis: Look, you got a white neighbourhood, OK? Like Guilford? And that's fine for them to have their own private little security force, but God forbid that we in the black community should decide to police our own, huh? It's suddenly perceived as a threat. Say what you will: The Muslims come to town, and the crime rate goes down in the projects.

Kellerman: I think the crime rate was pretty low under Hitler. What are you talking about?

Lewis: I'm talking about you. I'm talking about you! I don't see you up there walking foot up in the towers, huh? I don't see you volunteering to police that neighbourhood. [Pause] I got to go back to my interview.

Near the end of the show, Giardello, Lewis, and Kellerman are interrogating the Muslim leader again. Giardello demands the name of the murderer. "I will tell you," the Muslim leader says. "And I will tell him," looking at Lewis. "But not him, an unbeliever. " Kellerman shrugs and says to Lewis, "Just get the name." As he's walking out, Lewis calls him back ("Mike," he says softly). "He ain't going anywhere," Lewis says to the Muslim leader. Cut to a house raid; the Muslim leader talked, but the man they want is gone.

"Perhaps it's not too late to ask if you'd be interested in making the kalimah shahadah," the Muslim leader asks Lewis later. "A profession of faith?" "Very good, Brother Lewis." The Muslim leader holds out his hand; Lewis ignores it. "You should have given me that Jake." "Asalaam aleikum, Brother Lewis," the man says. "Aleikum asalaam," Lewis replies.

On one hand, the show gives us what could uncharitably be called a tidy liberal conclusion-- Lewis sticks with his partner across the racial divide. (That divide hurt: Kellerman averted his eyes during his quarrel with Lewis out of pain.) But again, Homicide's writers traffic in irony: It's the blacks who behaved like racists in the show, making Kellerman a scapegoat. At the same time, the Muslims' arguments about systemic racism and the Baltimore Police Department's unwillingness to police the projects have a certain historical validity and tug at Lewis in ways he finds uncomfortable, embarrassing, and most of all dangerous to his partnership with a man who's not merely white but blond. Also, the Muslim leader is about the same colour as Lewis; the fact that no one claimed that dark-skinned blacks are closer to the "original man" the Muslim leader kept speaking about was an unexpected blessing. But it also points up the futility of the racist argument: You can't help who your parents and grandparents and other ancestors were, whether they were all from one country or one continent (as with Kellerman and his actor, Reed Diamond) or a mixture (as with Lewis/Clark Johnson).

Moreover, just as Lewis was secretly aware of native religious traditions and the exercise of constitutional rights, he also knew the Arabic buzzwords of the Muslim black-separatist movement. But Lewis has staked his claim for a life in an integrated society, not a fantasyland constituted by a reverse apartheid.

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