There has been much ado this year about the NYPD stop and frisk policies, which NYPD and prosecuting authorities claim makes the streets of New York safer, and others claim promotes racial profiling. At the time of this writing, U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin is considering the case of David Floyd et al v. The City of New York, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 08-1034. This was not the first racial controversy to be visited upon the NYPD, nor is it likely to be the last. So I said when originally drafting this review, then I read the recent report in The New York Times article by Frances Robles and N. R. Kleinfeld that the Brooklyn District Attorney Conviction Integrity Unit is looking into some 50 murder cases assigned to “acclaimed” homicide Detective Louis Scarcella, who handled cases in the 1980s and 1990s, during the crack epidemic. On May 24, Robles wrote a follow up piece in which she said that many of the original Scarcella witnesses were either now dead or hard to find.
The same time period – and some of the same issues – are regarded in the late Nora Ephron’s journalistic play (and ode to journalists), Lucky Guy. The play depicts a painful piece of Policing Past – the scandal surrounding the sodomy of Abner Louima while in custody for a minor offense, at the hands (and toilet plunger) of policemen in Brooklyn’s 77th Precinct. (A former professor of mine, at a dinner party at his Ditmas Park home, pointed out is a local site of notoriety). As a former criminal appeals attorney and appellate judicial law clerk, I find this play brings out the parenthetical writer in me.
Many people are writing about Tom Hanks’ acting, and there is no question that he is an extraordinary actor in an extraordinary role (going from hungry cub reporter to cancer ridden Pulitzer-winner in the course of the show, without the benefit of few months in between to alter his body, as he did in Cast Away). Rather, this is an ode to ensemble playing, indeed, at the inferential gestures of Hanks himself. As I have told a number of people who have asked me how he was, I have pointedly noted that upon his entrance to thunderous applause, he briefly nodded (as if to nicely say, “yeah, I know, I’m Tom Hanks, now can I please go to work?”) and then disappeared into the role of columnist Mike McAlary and the workaday newsroom.
Courtney B. Vance, as Hanks’ boss Hap Hairston, gives what may be the Best Featured Actor Tony performance of the season. Vance variously nurtures, harangues, disciplines and celebrates the reporter who broke the Louima case (the Haitian immigrant is played with earnest compassion by Stephen Tyrone Williams, whose one scene turn reminded me that Judy Dench won an Oscar for 8 minutes in Shakespeare in Love). As Hanks shows McAlary to be a journalist in a hot mess for going after a rape victim he libelously (but seemingly earnestly) accused of fabrication. McAlary then takes a call when literally half-dead to show up at Louima’s hospital bedside, the reporter was in search of redemption. After hearing Louima’s story of oral and anal sodomy by police officers in the police station toilet, he tells him, “tell the DA you talked to a reporter.” Those who do not remember a world before cell phone images and videos are well-tutored by the oral history inextricably intertwined by Ephron with action scenes.
The play has been criticized for being too talky, but as one who engaged in ethnographic write up of the criminal trials of Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian for a PhD, I can attest that the play was all talk and all action. The search for breaking news, the hanging out on the doorsteps for exclusives, the smoke-filled newsrooms that today would be smoke free and blasting into the blogosphere and Twittersphere are reminiscent of the days (in 1996, especially) when print, radio and television reporters literally lined the walls of a courthouse and (in 1997) literally pitched a tent on the courthouse green. To me, the detail development was enthralling, perhaps because I have had to live in, and observe, that headspace as both a doctoral candidate and a writer. Wives (like Maura Tierney, as McAlary’s), husbands, girlfriends and boyfriends were left aside (if not completely behind), where the social world of the courthouse (to borrow a phrase from LSE sociologist Paul Rock) ruled, even more than the holdings of the court and the judges themselves. For me, the process fascinates, and the professional development (and personal unraveling) of the newsroom journalists and editors was well-worth every word, every gesture, every image and scene depicted in David Rockwell’s set.
Demetra M. Pappas, JD, MSc, PhD currently teaches in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at St. Francis College, where she was named the 2012 SGA Faculty Member of the Year. Her first book, Historical Guides to Controversial Issues in America: The Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide Debate, (Greenwood Press, 2012) (100 year study of US and UK doctors prosecuted for medical euthanasia/assisted suicide and role of meI dia) has been nominated for the2013 BSC Criminology Book Prize. Her PhD, from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Law and Department of Sociology (dual registration), was awarded in 2009, based upon her dissertation of an ethnography entitled, The Politics of Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: A Comparative Case Study of Emerging Criminal Law and the Criminal Trials of Jack ‘Dr. Death’ Kevorkian, in which she studied the chief prosecuting attorneys/judges, juries, patient’s family members and the media, as well as the changes in law and court culture pertaining to Kevorkian.