With AMC’s upcoming courtroom drama 61st Street, executive producer and writer J. David Shanks hopes to “spark conversation” that would continue to push the U.S. toward “meaningful, sustained change” with regard to systemic injustice, racially motivated police brutality and other issues.
“We want to have a healthy discussion in a safe environment,” Shanks said during the show’s TCA panel on Tuesday. “Nothing changes if we don’t continue to talk about it.”
The series from BAFTA winner Peter Moffat follows Moses Johnson (Tosin Cole), a promising Black high school athlete who is swept up into the infamously corrupt Chicago criminal justice system, and Franklin Roberts (Courtney B. Vance), the public defender who takes up his case. While Roberts has promised his wife he’ll retire, he takes on this case because he recognizes its potential to upend the entire Chicago judicial system, challenging the institutional racism and endemic corruption at its heart.
Mayo noted that the concept behind the show was to look at “systemic issues through the microcosm” of one city, which happens to be her hometown, offering up “a really layered and textured conversation about the history of this country and the treatment of Black people in this country since we first got here,” while spotlighting the “incredible community” that exists on Chicago’s South Side.
The series was informed by deep research into the city’s history, as well as the personal experiences of Shanks, who grew up as “a young Black man…on the South Side, who ran from the police a lot,” and later became a Chicago police officer before entering the world of film and TV.
From the perspective of Vance and Ward-Hammond, there is no better place than television to have nuanced conversations about complicated issues like those examined in 61st Street, in the absence of another venue. “There’s no forum for law enforcement, for all sorts of community members,” said Vance. “There’s no forum for people to sit down and talk about…these issues so people can get it potentially off their chests.”
Certainly, for Ward-Hammond, social media isn’t the ideal venue to examine subjects including episodes of police brutality. “I think with social media and technology, we are seeing more of these situations where we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, that happened? That’s crazy,'” the actress said, “and we get desensitized instead of having conversations about it.”
Ultimately, Vance knows that shifting people’s minds on pressing social issues is both “the slowest” and “the hardest thing.”
“You cannot legislate what people think in their minds,” he observed. “You cannot.”
Still, the most difficult conversations are the ones that we, as a society, most need to have. “We start where we are, and you’ve got to go back to kindergarten,” the actor said. “’Sharing is caring’ and figuring out, how else could you have best dealt with that situation?”
61st Street is produced by AMC Studios. The series was ordered as a two-season event with eight episodes per season, though a premiere date for Season 1 has not yet been set.
The drama’s all-star cast also includes Holt McCallany (Mindhunter), Aunjanue Ellis (Lovecraft Country), Mark O’Brien (Blue Bayou) and more.
Mayo exec produces with Michael B. Jordan via his Outlier Society, along with Hilary Salmon, Shanks, Jeff Freilich and Moffat who is also the showrunner.