Racism in the Liberal Arts, Part 3: When Poor Teaching in the Classroom Leads to Poor Practice in the Real World

While most critics have lambasted HBO’s reboot of Perry Mason, they have glossed over or ignored the racism, sexism, and classism that Robert Downey, Jr., and his team of writers took such pains to include in the cinematography and storytelling. In the most acerbic dismissal of the series yet, it was called “prestige trash” and the discrimination faced by the series’ Black officer was called a simple trope.

I must admit something: I am the youngest Perry Mason fan that you know. I was born after the 1960s and watch the show, in its black-and-white original, faithfully. I cannot tell you how many recorded episodes, from its inception to its end, fill my DVR. Hey, don’t blame me. A Baby Boomer and her World War II veteran father raised me. There are some things that I cannot help!

This year, Robert Downey, Jr. rebooted the series on HBO. Now, let me tell you, from the moment that the series reboot was announced, I had my doubts and misgivings. First of all, the show is not set in the 1950s and 60s as the original once was, but in the Depression-era 1930s. The antagonist would not be Hamilton Burger, but some DA who I have never heard of. Second of all, the leading man would not be a tall, scrapping, imposing figure with a line-backer’s shoulders, but Matthew Rhys. Now, Rhys is a handsome guy, but compared to Raymond Burr, he is miniscule! And Paul Drake is a Black beat cop? Della’s a lesbian? I had SERIOUS doubts before tuning in.

Perhaps, having been biased by at least four decades of the original series, that would explain some of the reviews. I have read many, many negative reviews of the show. Of course most of us have been biased against anything other than the Raymond Burr version of this beloved show. Of course, we have a hard time even viewing it in color. The black-and-white version is still currently on television several times per day.

In this reboot, Paul Drake is a Black beat cop and not Perry Mason’s seemingly personal investigator as he was in the old show. And though this show is in color, Team Downey does something with the cinematography here to help tell the story of another side of Los Angeles. This is not the sunny Los Angeles of opportunity and good will. Instead, it is dark and gritty, as the camera lenses are dark and almost greenish in tint.

The original Perry Mason never addressed skin color-based racism, because Black people simply did not exist, except for as token parts in a few episodes. This is a dark and gritty Los Angeles where Paul Drake can only ever be a beat cop, because even though he wears a badge, racism prevents him for garnering respect even from white criminals…his skin color presents an ever-present barrier.

Yet, there is something else underlying the vitriol with which these critics dismiss Team Downey’s efforts. There is something that they miss. There is something willfully ignored .As I was reading through one of the many reviews, I was offended when one of the writers called Drakes plight as a Black cop, a “trope.” This writer’s ending conclusion was that Team Downey’s reboot was nothing more than “prestige trash.” As a professor, I can tell you that this reviewer’s writing skills were terrific. This writer had obviously been taught well at some liberal art’s college. However, there was something missing in that writer’s education. Racism in America is not a trope. Team Downey has gone through great effort and pains to show that racism in America is not a trope, but a real, lived experience that infiltrated every facet of life. Racism in America was not and is not limited to the Southern part of the United States as our popular historical narratives would lead us to believe.

As a matter of fact, the lived experiences of segregation in the United Sates was more akin to South Africa’s apartheid than any of us are comfortable admitting, and Team Downey, with the gritty camera lens that darkens LA so that we do not view as the clean, pristine city of angels, shows us the “apartness” of American-style racism and segregation and racism. For example, in one scene featuring Drake and a friend, he and their wives were at the beach quietly discussing their futures while their wives frolicked in the water. Because Drake’s wife was clearly pregnant, the women could not do too much frolicking. A fellow white officer came and asked them to leave. It was understood that someone white wanted to use the beach, and Black people and whites were not to mingle on the beach. When Drake informed the officer that he, too, was a police officer, the policeman told Drake that he was out of jurisdiction.

One of the hidden, but often ignored facts of segregation in America, is that segregation extended to public parks and beaches as well. Black people were not entitled to fun and leisure the same way that white families were. Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there were several cities where Black people could not legally use the beaches. And while the segregation of California’s beaches may have been more “understood” or “practice” than legal, that did not mean it was any less real, as the scene showed.

The reboot and its images of racism and discrimination do not end there, and the critics do not address any of the other scenes with Drake, either. First of all, Drake, as a Black cop, is not allowed to handcuff any white criminals. He is not allowed to enter into the detective ranks. The corruption of the LAPD is allowed, because, well….white mediocrity is chosen over Black excellency. That’s a common theme in America. America sells itself as a capitalist meritocracy. That’s the lie we sell. If it were a true meritocracy, we would not need racism, classism, ageism, or any of the other isms that we use as psychological soothing balms.

Drake’s badge carries no authority with non-Black criminals and the critics simply do not address this the same the original Perry Mason does not address blackness. For example, in the reboot, Perry and Paul show up at an illegally run, Asian whore/heroin house. They are promptly told by the house’s madam, “White men only.”

It is also patently clear from all of the reviews that none of these critics have ever heard of the concept, “intersectionality” as described and defined by Kimberle Crenshaw. The original show featured one new crime per episode. In this reboot, the entire season revolves around the murder of a child. At first, the child’s father, Matthew Dodson,was accused. As it turns out, the child’s father was the love child of a very wealthy man. Matthew Dodson also had a gambling problem. It is strange how Matthew, when his wealthy father stepped into the situation, was suddenly released from jail, gave his consent to testify against his wife, had his gambling debts paid, and began to reside in the mansion with his wealth father.

On the other hand, Matthew’s wife who was not wealthy, Emily, was found having an extra-marital affair with one of the men accused of being involved in the kidnapping. The DA began to focus on the wife instead. Her husband, during several years of marriage, neglected to tell her that he was the product of an illicit affair, but did not hesitate to call her a slut along with the rest of the world. He gave his consent to testify against her in court. Her bail was revoked, her attorney committed suicide and no one would agree to take her case (which pushed Perry Mason to go from being a private detective to being an attorney), her church paid her bail and she had to move in with her female pastor. Sexism and classism in the body one 100 pound woman being railroaded by the state of California. And yet, no critic, in their eagerness to dismiss this show, even mentioned it.

Could it be that no critic wants to accept racism outside of the American South or sexism and classism outside of the American South? Could it be that a show about the 1930s without Italian gangsters in pinstriped suits, guns, and illegal alcohol was doomed to be dismissed? Could it be that this Perry Mason in color and without a linebacker’s shoulders is being dismissed because we are all being prejudiced? Or could it be that the writers of these reviews missed a view gender studies/history/sociology/African American/women studies classes? I mean, these classes are not considered “required” in even most liberal arts colleges. And we even have professors still writing about them as “unnecessary.” But when we have major, nationally/internationally film and television critics writing about racism as a “trope” and not mentioning sexism and classism at all, are they?



LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.

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LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.