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How 'Let's Be Cops' Shows What Our Culture Accepts About Power and Race

Criticwire By Max O'Connell | Criticwire August 15, 2014 at 4:17PM

"Let's Be Cops" couldn't come at a worse time, but it's doing well in theaters. What does that say about our culture?
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Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr. in 'Let's Be Cops'
Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr. in 'Let's Be Cops'

The timing of "Let's Be Cops" couldn't have been worse. Granted, a film about two guys who get power-mad from pretending to be cops should have been uncomfortable under any circumstances, given that stories about police abusing their power isn't a new thing. But releasing the film right after the death of Michael Brown and subsequent protests and arrests is like releasing a comedy about a bomb on a plane immediately after 9/11 (see: the delay "Big Trouble" in 2001). 

Slate's Aisha Harris watched the film to see if perhaps it was more critical than the trailers led her to believe, and if perhaps the film satirized the power given to police officers. Answer: not really, or at least not intentionally, but it did get into some uncomfortable racial dynamics that go with the territory.

But it’s interesting that the friend who sees each moment in which he somehow gets away with his fraud as the gateway to even bigger, and more dangerous (but fun!) hijinks, is white. In his own delusional world, pretending to be a cop is his path toward doing something with his life—on more than one occasion, Ryan explains to his friend, desperately, that he’s actually found a purpose in being a fake cop. Meanwhile, the friend who clearly wishes he wasn’t wrapped up in this mess is black. For him, the advantages that accompany being a cop—like the hot girl who is instantly turned on by the sight of your badge—don’t outweigh the serious jail time that awaits them once they’re found out. While the movie doesn’t interrogate the idea at all, Ryan is acting on the luxury he has as white male not to fear consequences in the same way that Justin does.


Harris goes on to note that the characters essentially get off scot-free, and that Jake Johnson in particular shows that he can keep the position in spite of his crimes. It's queasy stuff because the film dances right on the edge of something rife for satire and instead plays it off as a goof, which makes it more unsettling.

Here's the thing, though: "Let's Be Cops" seems primed to be a hit, if the box office reports on Wednesday and Thursday are any indication. One of Criticwire's Daily Reads today was an article in Forbes by Scott Mendelson, which pointed to "Let's Be Cops" as an example of marketing trumping timing. 

The lack of reviews, and then the wave of negative reviews that dripped online yesterday, plus the ghastly circumstances straight out of the first act of a "Hunger Games" movie, didn’t seem to make a dent in a movie centered around the comedic notion that police officers (or fake police officers, in this case) can use their authority to engage in misbehavior. In the end, all that mattered was 20th Century Fox’s strong marketing campaign, which was so simple even my (near) seven-year old daughter could read and understand the plot as we drove past a billboard last week.


"Let's Be Cops" isn't trying to be anything more than an escapist film, which is probably all audiences are looking for – the B Cinemascore suggests that they're not picking up on the real life parallels either (though I'd be curious to see if people of color see them more clearly than white audience members). But that might be indicative of how much questions of race and power are skirted over by most Americans. It's a difficult subject to talk about, but it's not a problem that's going to go away, and the fact that "Let's Be Cops" can reinforce both abuse of authority and white privilege without anyone batting an eye at it shines a light on what we're willing to accept as a culture.

This article is related to: Let's Be Cops


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