Interviews , Television

Courtney B. Vance And Tosin Cole On How '61st Street' Humanizes People Affected By The Criminal Justice System

Still taking a stand with the odds stacked against you is the theme viewers watch unfold on AMC’s 61st Street.

Based in the South Side of Chicago, the drama show — executive produced by Michael B. Jordan — follows Franklin Roberts (Courtney B. Vance), a nearly retired public defender, and Moses Johnson (Tosin Cole), a star high school athlete who was pursued for a crime he didn’t commit.

While the two are in different positions in the judicial system, how their stories are actually deeply in tune with one another is more than what initially meets the eye. Both the inner and life battles that are portrayed on 61st Street are a mirror of some of the personal experiences that its executive producer and writer J. David Shanks faced as a youth from the South Side turned police officer.

Shadow and Act recently spoke to Vance and Cole about the series and the themes it explores.

Within his extensive career, Vance is a veteran actor that knows his chops, especially for his roles of figures in law.

In contrast with his previous portrayals, playing Franklin came as a bit of new territory for him.

“Everything was against him. I had the system with me with [The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story] and [Law and Order: Criminal Intent] I was in the in-crowd and this one, I was on the outside. My own client is doubting me and I’m doubting myself.  I got health challenges. Everything said to me I’m going to fail…If I’m gonna fall, I’m gonna fall hard, but this young man was worth it. And it was a challenge for me within the context of the project and the actual physical challenge of doing all these courtroom scenes in the context of COVID and not being able to go home and see my family for about four or five months. So, it was emotionally, physically, spiritually extremely challenging and still we rose.”

Taking on the role of Moses was also emotionally taxing for Cole in his own personal way. Having to execute scenes of traumatic experiences that people are facing daily in reality required tenacity, but the team around him supported him to be able to rise to the occasion.

"It was definitely tough on me for sure. Just being vulnerable for the whole shoot. It really kicks off episode one to episode eight," Cole said.

“But I think obviously preparation is key and trying to find the truth and the essence of the character, but at the same time, it’s having a great team. When you have great actors for sure it helps to bounce off. I kind of find it like tennis. We rally and we try and find it. I think everybody wants to try and find the truth, essence, and core of it.”

The challenging roles in turn created an interconnected story of what it looks like when someone gets wrapped into the system and someone is supportive enough to help give them a real shot of regaining their freedom. The relationship between Roberts and Johnson that builds throughout the series exemplifies the humanization of what inmates face with the criminal justice system.

“Once someone sees that you’re willing to risk it all for them, then they commit to you,” Vance shares. “‘Cause that’s his question to me.  Are you in this for the right reasons? Are we doing this together? And once he knows that I got him no matter what, then there’s nothing that can get in between us. And so that’s the human situation.”

AMC’s 61st Street airs new episodes Sundays on AMC.

Watch the full interview above.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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