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AMC’s ’61st Street’ Stays True To Chicago’s South Side — And Black Americans’ Experiences, Cast And Crew Say

The thriller, starring Courtney B. Vance and Aunjanue Ellis, explores the nuances of Black life and the criminal justice system in and around the titular Woodlawn street. It premieres Sunday night on AMC.

Courtney B. Vance as public defender Franklin Roberts and Andrene Ward-Hammond as Norma Johnson, the mother of rising track star Moses Johnson, as seen in the second episode of "61st Street."
Chuck Hodes/AMC
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WOODLAWN — As Peter Moffat prepared for a run during his first visit to Chicago several years ago, he asked the receptionist at his Downtown hotel how to get to the Lakefront Trail.

The receptionist obliged, instructing Moffat to head east, but told the British playwright and screenwriter not to turn right — meaning south — when he got to the lake.

“That was my first introduction to what I think we can safely call a segregated city,” Moffat said.

By ignoring the receptionist and running south along the lakefront, Moffat was introduced to the settings and the people behind “61st Street.” Moffat is the creator and an executive producer of the new drama series, which premieres Sunday on AMC and the network’s streaming services, AMC+ and ALLBLK.

“61st Street” tracks the aftermath of a drug bust gone violently wrong as it explores the inequities, relationships and motivations that contribute to South Side life. The thriller is locked in for 16 episodes, which will be released over two seasons.

Moffat’s interaction with the receptionist inspired a scene early in the pilot episode. Franklin Roberts — a public defender on the verge of retirement, played by Courtney B. Vance — asks a judge if he’s ever turned right upon reaching the lakefront before the judge sentences a Black man for theft.

But that scene is far from the show’s only reflection of reality, according to cast and crew members who said the production of “61st Street” has been defined by its quest for authenticity.

“Although it’s a show about a deep problem, which is the police, I think and hope that it’s also a show that shows a community in all its breadth and depth,” Moffat said. “It’s a show about community spirit, a show about Black excellence, a show about joy, and a show about fear and anxiety and confusion.”

From its engagement with local residents, its nuanced take on Black life in and around Woodlawn and its producer’s support of a program to get South Siders into media production, “61st Street” can have an impact on Black American culture — both on and off the TV screen, its makers said.

“Our crew was a true representation of what this country is and what this city is,” said executive producer J. David Shanks, a South Side native and former Chicago Police officer. “That’s what it should be, and that’s what we aspire to do with the show.”

Credit: Chuck Hodes/AMC
Star high school athlete Moses Johnson, played by Tosin Cole, flees through an alley in West Woodlawn during the pilot episode of “61st Street.”

From the jump, the “61st Street” writers aimed not to write “a generic urban police procedural,” but instead wanted “to be really attentive to the particularities of the South Side,” Invisible Institute founder and series consultant Jamie Kalven said.

The Invisible Institute, a Woodlawn-based journalism nonprofit whose headquarters are on 61st Street, hosted the series’ writers’ room during the first few weeks of production.

Kalven said the series allowed him to take creative liberties in storytelling not afforded to him in his reporting, which has included coverage of Laquan McDonald’s murder and Harith Augustus’ killing — both at the hands of Chicago Police officers.

“It was kind of fascinating to be in this creative space where you’re not completely constrained by the facts that you can establish,” he said.

With input from the Invisible Institute, Black Lives Matter Chicago, Sunshine Gospel Ministries and other locals, the writers put together a 16-episode arc that honors the community, even if it’s telling a fictional story, Moffat said.

It’s also filmed on location, with “L” tracks, “No Loitering” signs on the sides of corner stores, and the Criminal Courts Building at 26th Street and California Avenue among the many visual references local viewers may recognize.

“This show is shot exclusively on the South Side,” he said. “We brought to the South Side an economy in paying our way, employing people, talking to people — albeit in a more limited fashion than we would’ve liked, had there not been this wretched pandemic.”

Filming in Chicago is bolstered by the wealth of buildings still standing, Vance said — even in disinvested communities like the South Side. He also stars in “Lovecraft Country,” which was filmed in and around the city.

“When you come through this town, you see the character of the town,” said Vance, comparing Chicago’s built environment to his hometown of Detroit. “That’s why people come to shoot here — you can go in the neighborhoods and you see Chicago.”

The cast and crew brought their own experiences to the series, adding a layer of authenticity that wasn’t necessarily Chicago-specific.

Andrene Ward-Hammond is a Brooklyn native who plays Norma Johnson, the mother of Moses Johnson, a star high school athlete who strives to stay clear of the violence and crime that touches so many around him.

As the series’ inciting incident forces Norma apart from Moses, Ward-Hammond poured her own anxieties and sadness to the role, as she was separated from her child for the first extended time as she filmed “61st Street.”

It’s an example of how, though the setting may be uniquely Chicago, the characters convey experiences Black people across America can identify with, Ward-Hammond said.

“Chicago is a microcosm of everything,” she said. “Chicago is not different than every other neighborhood. We have the same experiences, we just have them in different cities.”

Credit: James Washington/AMC
Tosin Cole, who plays rising track star Moses Johnson, and Courtney B. Vance are seen behind the scenes as they film the second episode of “61st Street.”

The cast and crew gathered for a screening of the show’s first episode Friday at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.

During a panel discussion with input from the audience, one attendee said the gripping pilot episode convinced them to tune in for all 16 episodes, though they’ve never watched a full TV series before. Other Chicagoans in attendance shared how they saw themselves reflected in characters like Moses or Norma.

Alongside the praise, some attendees questioned whether Black Americans need to engage with another story that so prominently features Black trauma and police abuse.

It was a point on which the panelists made themselves very clear: Black people may be familiar with variations of the tale told in “61st Street” through their own life experiences, but these are stories the rest of America needs to hear.

“This is our story,” Vance said after the panel. “Somebody else is going to tell it from their perspective, but this the story that we want to tell.”

As brutal as the show’s depictions of violence and oppressive policing can be, it reflects a reality in which “it’s not clear to me that things have changed significantly” more than seven years after McDonald’s murder, Kalven said.

Despite “a sense of urgency about police reform” that arose after officer Jason Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times, residents in communities like Woodlawn and others along 61st Street are still fighting for “conditions where people [are] safe and respected in their neighborhoods,” Kalven said.

“What’s important about this [show], and what’s ultimately conveyed by the quality of the acting, is that this is our neighborhood,” he said. “This is our place in which, all too often, intolerable things happen affecting our neighbors — acts of police violence; wrongful convictions. It’ll be interesting to see how people respond to it.”

The show’s impact can go deeper than anything shown on screen, Shanks said. AMC is partnering with Kennedy-King College to train people of color “to come into these spaces and work” on shows like 61st Street, he said — something he said was a “vital” aspect of his involvement on the project.

Shanks will insist on partnerships that “pull people in” to the production process for any Chicago-based project he works on, in an effort to boost representation of marginalized communities in the industry, he said. That could include job shadowing opportunities and on-set training.

“In a perfect world, a project like AMC’s partnership with Kennedy-King is a pipeline,” Shanks said. “… If we keep pushing, if we keep knocking and people watch — that’s when things turn around.”

Credit: Chuck Hodes/AMC
From left: J. David Shanks, Andrene Ward-Hammond, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, director Marta Cunningham and Courtney B. Vance pose for a photo during the filming of 61st Street’s second episode.

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