The Many Ways Pop Culture Approached Criminal Justice In 2015


Because ubiquitous end-of-year roundups have, for better or worse, become a holiday tradition in their own right, it’s only fair that ThinkProgress gives the people what they want. We’ve already tackled the biggest pop culture surprises and some of the best culture writing of 2015. And now we’re bringing you a (slightly more serious but still pretty silly) collection of all the times pop culture broached criminal justice in 2015.

Why are we doing this? Because criminal justice was one of the buzziest topics of the year. With the growing movement to end the culture of police violence, corrupt and exploitative courts, and racially-biased, disruptive, and deadly incarceration, everyone from students to clergy to celebrities to politicians have confronted criminal justice in a very public way. And that seeped into the TV shows and movies we watch, the music we listen to, and the celebrities we admire.

Pop culture shapes how the masses think and feel about national trends, so it’s important for it to engage in larger conversations about social justice. 2015 showed us that we’re still trying to figure out how to do that effectively. Take a look at what happened this year:

TV took on police violence…

Thanks to America’s obsession with cop procedurals, shows on broadcast networks usually tell unrealistic stories about the criminal justice system — from the perspective of cops. But with protests happening all over the country, it should come as no surprise that a bunch of showrunners jumped at the opportunity to include police violence.


The result? An unarmed black man was shot near the White House in Scandal. Empire jumped into the ring with Jamal and Hakeem’s “Ain’t About the Money” music video, in which black revolutionaries square off against militarized cops. When Winston became a police officer in New Girl, he tried to hide his profession from a potential love interest, a Black Lives Matter activist. An African-American family debated the power of protesting police in the Carmichael’s, NBC’s newest sitcom. The Good Wife took on Homan Square, a black-site where Chicago police disappear and torture people for intelligence. And faux-outrage surrounding a police shooting sprung up in South Park.

So which show was most effective in portraying the other side? We’re giving that distinction to Scandal. Shonda Rhimes has tackled a bunch of social justice issues on the show, but the characters in this episode really captured the raw emotion — anger, grief, fear — that police violence conjures up in communities of color. With the White House and U.S. Capitol mere blocks away, the shooting became politicized in the same way ‘black lives matter’ and criminal justice have steered real-life political discourse.

Which show, on the other hand, needed to have a seat? Empire. We love the Lyon family antics, but the police brutality theme in the brothers’ music video had nothing to do with their song’s lyrics (Quick sample: If you know like I know, say ain’t about the money. It’s about the power. Ain’t about the money. It’s about the power.) Black power and clashes with the police seemed to be thrown in for shock value alone, trivializing the attempts to stop police violence as a result. Lee Daniels should know better. See it for yourself:

…and the country’s mass incarceration problem.

Fewer shows took on prison injustice this year. The two biggest standouts were Orange Is the New Black and Empire.

The former has been criticized for sugar-coating life in lock-up, but this season’s transphobia story arc was profound. Laverne Cox’s character Sophia is physically assaulted by prisoners and thrown into solitary confinement so she won’t raise hell. And that is exactly what happens to real-life trans women behind bars. The vast majority spend time in solitary, which is widely considered a form of torture. A large percentage of them are harassed, beaten, and raped by other prisoners or staff. OITNB should be applauded for taking on such a heavy topic.

CREDIT: Netflix
CREDIT: Netflix

Empire gets another “bye, Felicia.” Where to start? Should we begin with the “Free Lucious” concert hosted by Cookie, even though she knows he’s guilty of murder and obstructing justice? Or that the show tried to turn the the music mogul’s incarceration into a larger social commentary on the incarceration of black men? Or perhaps we should focus on Lucious’ 100 percent implausible ability to make a hit record and leak it from behind bars.


The first episode of the second season opens with Swizz Beatz blasting the system for a grave injustice: “Did you know there are 1.68 million black men being held up in mass incarceration in American’s prison system today, right now? Just like my brother Lucious Lyon’s spent three months held up without bail.” Then Cookie descends from the heavens in a cage — dressed as a gorilla (a less than subtle way of saying black men are treated like animals in the system). All the while, fans scream in outrage. The show’s viewers know Lucious deserves to be in prison for what he’s done, so fans-turned-protesters look uninformed, silly, and gullible. Empire’s (the record company) media circus profits from public support and exposure, and the plight of African-Americans in the criminal justice system becomes a joke.


Movies did, too!

Without a doubt, Straight Outta Compton was one of the best films of the year. The story of N.W.A.’s rap takeover was also the story of the LAPD’s history of racial profiling and brutality. But there were also lesser-known movies that captured law enforcement abuse. The Stanford Prison Experiment, about the psychological damage the confines of a prison can cause, gave us a poignant look at how tortuous incarceration can be. And Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, a documentary about the rise of a radical black power movement, explained how the government conspired with police to kill activists, incarcerate them, and oppress African-Americans.

All three films were phenomenal.

CREDIT: Youtube
CREDIT: Youtube

Music videos gave us raw, vivid imagery to reckon with.

Singers and rappers added their voices — and videos — to the conversation as well. We aren’t going to name bests and worsts in this category, since all of the performers deserve praise for their work. Unlike the nonsense in Empire, none of the artists’ videos came off as tasteless, gimmicky, or insincere. The stories they told aligned with the lyrics — all of which confronted oppression. Tip of the hat to all who used their music for good:


Kendrick Lamar’sAlright” became an anthem/hype song for Black Lives Matter, with protesters chanting “we gon’ be alright” in the streets. While the song is more generally about black hope in the face of oppression, the video features an encounter between Lamar and an officer, as well as three masked people dancing on a cop car.

Rihanna’s song “American Oxygen” is an ode to the broken American Dream and the systemic violence that plagues society. To drive that point home, the adjoining music video showcases decades of oppression and hate in the U.S., including police attacks on protesters, past and present.

Run The Jewels followed up last year’s “Close Your Eyes” montage with an equally-gritty video for “Early,” which details everything that happens during and after a police stop. In the black, red, and white cartoon video, a man is stopped, frisked, arrested, and whisked off to prison. Protesters square off against police donned in riot gear, while the man sits behind bars.

Usher’s “Chains” video was a simple but affecting one, featuring the names, faces, and ages of people killed by police.

Aloe Blacc’s “Merry Christmas Mr. Brown” took a similar approach, showing black and white photos of police brutality victims and their loved ones.

Famouses called for criminal justice reform

Aside from musicians using their art to describe an oppressive system, actors and actresses, directors, athletes, motivational speakers, and comedians flexed their activist muscles this year.

On the prison front, more than 90 celebrities (Amy Schumer, Jesse Williams, Mark Ruffalo, Steph Curry, and Sanaa Lathan, to name a few) signed on to the Cut50 campaign to reduce mass incarceration by 50 percent in 10 years. John Legend launched his own campaign called FREE AMERICA, “to change the national conversation about our country’s misguided policies.” To better understand the problems with the current system and work on concrete solutions, the singer-songwriter traveled the country to meet with people behind bars, lawmakers, and police officers. And How to Get Away With Murder star Matt McGorry encouraged all of his fans to read the New Jim Crow, which explains how the prison system entraps and exploits black people.

“The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander is absolutely brilliant. Every single page has me highlighting multiple…

Posted by Matt McGorry on Monday, November 30, 2015

Others showed us the power of protest. Janelle Monae and her Wondaland crew released “Hell You Talmbout.” In the song, the artists chant the names of police brutality victims over marching band music. Since its release, Monae has joined demonstrations in Chicago and D.C., and performed at rallies against police violence. Run The Jewels also made a BBC video about why rioting is an effective tactic. Quentin Tarantino rallied against police terror in New York City, going so far as to call cops “murderers.”

Lauryn Hill, Danny Glover, and Alice Walker stressed global solidarity among marginalized groups by participating in a Black-Palestinian solidarity PSA.

Again, it’s hard to identify whose efforts were “best.” Celebrities should be commended for challenging the status quo. But this time we’re going to say that Tarantino “lost” this category, for several reasons. The controversy surrounding his involvement in the protest became a distraction. Refusing to apologize, Tarantino didn’t use the public attention to uplift the voices of other people doing work in this space. Facing pressure to apologize, Tarantino responded by talking more about himself. This is also the same tone-deaf guy who played the victim card and said he was disproportionately called out for the color of his skin. Bye, Quentin.

Award shows paid homage to Black Lives Matter…

Despite what Clueless-actress-turned-Fox-News-pundit Stacey Dash thinks, political statements are always made at the Academy Awards. The latest ceremony was no exception.

When John Legend and Common won an Oscar for their original song, “Glory,” the two artists used their acceptance speech as a time to reflect on present-day discrimination in the corrections system.

“We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now,” Legend said. “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you, ‘We are with you. We see you. We love you. And march on.”

During their performances at the Grammy’s, Beyonce and Pharrell paid homage to “hands up, don’t shoot” — the rallying cry behind the Mike Brown protests back in 2014.

But apparently Rebel Wilson didn’t get the memo that you shouldn’t make light of police violence, when hundreds of lives are taken every year. Consequently, her “Fuck the Stripper Police” skit — “I know a lot of people have problems with the police, but I have a problem with police strippers” — was an utter failure at the VMA’s.

CREDIT: Associated Press/Matt Sayles/Invision
CREDIT: Associated Press/Matt Sayles/Invision

…and so did our superheroes.

In one of the most recent Batman comics, a black teenager in a hoodie is shot dead by a white cop (sound familiar?). And when he realizes that he’s indirectly responsible for the shooting, the Dark Knight is forced to confront race and police violence in Gotham. The issue was a slam dunk, fusing the two themes with commentary on class and power.

While race wasn’t the focal point of his story, Superman also sticks up for peaceful protesters squaring off against hostile cops. When the Man of Steel sees police with military-grade weapons and tanks cracking down on the demonstrators, he jumps in to stand up for them. He even goes so far as to get physical with a cop.

No winners or losers here. And we can’t wait to see what writer/social justice advocate/icon Ta-Nahesi Coates does with Black Panther 2016.