Civil rights on the Hill

I’ve been re-watching Hill Street Blues, which is running nightly on Channel 4 in the small hours in a version tailored for the hard of hearing, maybe meeting some broadcasting quotas as it goes.

It was , of course, a path-breaking show which reinvented the television police drama in the 1980s, by foregrounding the whole of the police station, not just a couple of individuals, interweaving multiple storylines and using handheld cameras to create a verite feel. Actually, arguably, it reinvented television drama while it was at it. Aesthetically, even 30 years on, the series feels remarkably fresh.

Looking back at the 1980s from the 2010s, it’s also possible to suggest that the series captured the notion that the American inner-city had become a battle-ground – and that it implied (but never spelt out) Gill Scott-Heron’s argument that in the backlash from the victories of the civil rights movement a combination of drugs and politics meant these battlegrounds were managed through policing rather than politics. Some of the sharpest moments in the show were when Chief Daniels clashed with Capt. Furillo over the political consequences of his policing.

And it also caught, brilliantly, in its (probably) Chicago setting the racial politics of post-civil rights America. We caught a re-run of Lucky Ducks the other night, about half way through the series, where Renko is about to marry Daryl-Ann, whose family is clearly from the South. There’s a fabulous piece of writing in the pre-wedding dinner, where Renko’s Hill Street colleagues – including his (black) partner Bobby Hill, his best man – have turned out to meet Darryl-Ann’s mother and father. It’s like the entire civil rights movement being played out over the toasts. After some speeches from Hill Street colleagues, Daryl Ann’s father gets to his feet (starts 40’30 in), and after a few other ill-judged remarks:

FATHER: ‘… I’ve had the chance to get to know Bobby Hill and he seems like a real nice boy. Best wishes to everybody.

BOBBY HILL: Well now, I want to thank Mr Maconachie and say it’s a good thing he likes me since I’m sure that he’s quite familiar with the old tradition that if anything happens to the groom before the wedding then the best man’s supposed to step in.

FATHER: Well, I don’t know what tradition that is, but anybody who runs out on my little girl and I’m perfectly prepared to take care of her, and him, myself.

RENKO: I don’t know what anybody’s talking about, because you couldn’t get me away from this beautiful girl with a tow-truck.

BOBBY HILL: Oh, that’s not what anybody’s talking about, Andy. [PAUSE]

SGT NEIL WASHINGTON: So, uh, you folks have a nice trip up? [PAUSE] Take the inter-state?

Hill’s character is one of the nicest in the show, but the word ‘boy’ – addressed by white person to black – was incendiary even in the 1980s. You have to watch the scene, because the acting and the direction make the whole story (looks could kill), but the way the conflict is so visibly there, without anyone saying as much, or raising their voices, is a fabulous piece of writing.


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