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Courtney B. Vance's new legal thriller tells an all-too-timely story of police misconduct and systemic racism in America
After winning myriad awards for playing one of the most famous attorneys ever, Courtney B. Vance is now portraying a very different kind of lawyer, in a very different kind of story.
The actor follows his lauded work as Johnnie Cochran in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story—as well as recent turns in Lovecraft Country and Genius: Aretha—with the Chicago-set 61st Street, which debuts the first of two scheduled seasons this weekend.
AMCVance plays Franklin Roberts, who becomes the legal representative for Moses Johnson (Tosin Cole, Doctor Who), a high school athlete mistaken for a gang member by police. The case becomes about much more, however, as the cops and the prosecution use it to try and settle some scores over an officer’s death during a drug raid. Cast members furthermore include King Richard Oscar-nominee Aunjanue Ellis, Snowfall’s Bentley Green and Mindhunter’s Holt McCallany.
Also a producer on 61st Street, alongside movie star Michael B. Jordan (Creed) and series creator Peter Moffat, Vance says: “I think we all had to get our minds around how big this thing was. We didn’t have one person who was overseeing the day-to-day operations, so all the actors and much of the crew had to pitch in and make sure we were on the same page.”
AMCThough 61st Street is quite different from The People v. O.J., Vance was drawn to both dramas by their shared theme of the legal arena, and by the ever-intensifying place the law holds for so many people in daily modern life.
“It is a prime time for discussions of right and wrong, of moral centres,” he reflects. “I think we’re at a crossroads about what’s right for a city, a country and a society. If someone crosses a line, what is the right thing to do? We continually find ways to say it’s the [citizens’] fault, and maybe we need to look at the way police are trained and how they react to situations. Maybe we need a reboot. But at least we need to talk about it.”
AMCVance spent much of last year filming both seasons of 61st Street, his schedule often coinciding with that of wife Angela Bassett, a star and exec producer of Fox’s 9-1-1. And on that front, he has no complaints: “We’re blessed enough to be able to work, and we’ve been working our entire professional careers, since we graduated from Yale Drama School. I don’t think I’ve ever had any other job, and that’s very rare.”
61st Street airs Sundays at 7:02 p.m. & 10:10 p.m. on AMC