How HBO's Perry Mason, Watchmen underscore existential tension of policing while Black, in the US
Perry Mason's Paul Drake suffers from what Samuel L Jackson in Shaft described as 'too black for the uniform, too blue for the brothers' dilemma.
In the new HBO adaptation of Erle Stanley Gardner's stories, we meet the beloved mystery-solving trio of Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys), Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) in 1932, a year before the first Perry Mason novel was published. Set in 1930s Los Angeles crippled by the Great Depression, it’s a world where no institution — not the church, not the police and not even the family — can resist the sweet temptation of corruption. It's something Perry, Della and Paul learn the hard way as they solve the "kidnapping gone horribly wrong" mystery in the first season.
The first season gives Perry a Raymond Chandler-meets-James Ellroy kind of origin story. Perry is not (yet) the celebrated defense lawyer: he is a luckless and penniless private investigator dragging behind him the still vivid traumas sustained in WWI trenches, and the weight of a failed marriage. Della is the unsung legal secretary to an ageing defense lawyer but aspires to have her own courtroom career one day. She is reimagined as a closeted lesbian, which in retrospect also explains her continuous rebuffs of Perry's marriage proposals in the novels. It follows a recent trend in TV storytelling where canonically straight characters are queered retroactively to contest heteronormative assumptions of eras past through a present-day, progressive lens. But it remains to be seen if Della's sexuality will remain a subtext or grow into something more in the following seasons. If Della has been queered, Paul is reimagined as a black cop, struggling to fit in with the predominantly white, proudly racist cops of the LAPD.
Paul suffers from what Samuel L Jackson in Shaft described as "too black for the uniform, too blue for the brothers" dilemma. In the wake of George Floyd's death, it is an all-too-real dilemma for black cops facing an intersection of identity and occupation. When an unarmed black man is shot by a white police officer, how do they reconcile the perspective of the black man with that of the cop? Paul is forced to walk a tightrope, balancing his loyalty between his community and colleagues without pissing either off. At work, he must not only deal with racism but also corruption within police ranks, as he is forced to participate in a cover-up by higher-ranking detectives. At home, his pregnant wife urges him not to expose it for his own safety. Hamstrung by white cops, he can't do what he swore to: protect and serve his community.
This feeling of helplessness and injustice is the spark that lights the powder keg of another origin story in a recent HBO drama. In the graphic novel Watchmen, Alan Moore never reveals the identity or back story of Hooded Justice, who is canonically the first masked vigilante. So, Damon Lindelof fills in the blanks in the 2019 series, imagining Hooded Justice as Will Reeves, a Tulsa race riot survivor who joins the New York City police force as one of its first black officers. Will soon discovers a white supremacist group known as "the Cyclops" is operating insidiously within the NYPD, and using a mind-control device to incite riots among the black community.
While Paul struggles with guilt following the cover-up, his wife deters him from playing the hero. "There's no point in fighting to change what's not going to change," she says, worried that openly calling out racial bias in a police culture with a widely known history of it could threaten his career, not to mention their lives. The turning point for Paul and his wife comes when they're enjoying a nice, sunny day out with their friends at a Santa Monica beach — only to be ordered to vacate by white police officers, who threaten to send them packing by force if they don't comply. When Paul's wife tells them he's a policeman too, they pay little heed. Paul realises he will never be one of them, even if they wear the same uniform. He admits it in a harrowing tell-it-like-it-is confession to Perry: "Every day, I gotta wake up with this ball of fear inside of me. Gotta go put on that uniform, go out there and play the fool. You know there's not one black officer assigned to work with a white officer? Not one. We all on foot patrol, by ourselves, keeping the coloureds in check. Hell, they won't even let me cuff white folks. Because a black man, even a goddamn black police officer, can never stand up to a white man. Never. Even a goddamn white criminal. A white fucking murderer gets to look down on me."
Will realises this too. During his graduation from the police academy, the white officer officiating the ceremony refuses to pin the badge on his uniform, leaving the task to a black colleague. But the turning point for him comes when he arrests a white man for burning down a Jewish deli, only to see him released without being charged by his colleagues. In retaliation, they string Will up and nearly lynch him.
When Paul realises the evidence he withheld could sentence an innocent woman to death, he reluctantly offers evidence and details of the cover-up to Perry, but sternly suggests not to mention how he came across the evidence. Later in the series, Paul takes the stand during the trial, and Perry keeps his word out of concern for Paul's life and career. For maintaining the lie, Paul is compensated with hush money by his precinct chief. But the feeling of being "owned" doesn't sit well with Paul.
The following night, Paul unloads on Perry how he wished his hand was forced so he could have someone to blame. But in the end, it was fear that stopped him from telling the truth. The horror and anguish of being punished for doing the right thing is visible in his eyes, which reflect how racism has paralysed so many black men and women with fear, like a dark shadow eternally cast on their lives. "Every day, I'm scared, Mason, that I'm going to let it all out," he says.
If Paul only threatens, Will goes one step further and does let it all out. He becomes Hooded Justice, a masked vigilante dishing out righteous retribution against the white custodians of America's founding injustices. The hood and the hangman's noose, which were used to nearly lynch him, take on a whole new meaning as these symbols of oppression are used against the oppressors in a rehabilitation of a historically oppressed figure. This also applies to Hooded Justice's use of "white-face." Beyond preserving his anonymity, the use of white makeup on the visible outline of his eyes hide his blackness in a world where law enforcement is in league with white supremacists. More importantly, it helps keep his family safe.
Watchmen addresses the epidemic of racism in law enforcement, which continues to be a breeding ground for white supremacists. Due to the obvious ideological overlap, Will doesn't believe he can change the system from within. So, he decides to act outside of it. Paul too acts within it — until he realises the white man's laws don't really protect the black community. This is best exemplified in a scene in the opening episode of Watchmen, where a black cop is killed by a white supremacist in a routine traffic stop as he waits for his white supervisor to authorise the usage of his gun. In such a world, Hooded Justice thus decides to take the law into his own hands. Paul however doesn't take the vigilante route, but instead quits the force and decides to join Perry as a private investigator.
Being a black PI in a majority-white country will sure bring up a whole host of challenges that white Paul Drake, from the novels and CBS series, never had to navigate. This sets up plenty of intriguing drama and dilemmas for future seasons of Perry Mason. For instance, in the episode "The Case of Paul Drake's Dilemma" in the original CBS series, Perry tries to clear Paul from a murder charge. Rhys's Perry will surely find it far harder to do likewise in the HBO reboot. Chalk echoed a similar sentiment in an Esquire interview. "Once [Drake] turns that badge in, he's living the most dangerous life possible for an African American, because now he's a former, he betrayed the police. They know his name. They know you and they know you actively are coming against them, so I think in the future Paul faces a lot more emotional and spiritual freedom, but probably physically he's going to be in a lot more danger." In addition, now that we’re keyed in on the origin stories, it will be exciting to see Perry, Della and Paul engage in good banter, solve better mysteries, and do their best John Lithgow impressions.
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