It’s no coincidence that in CBS’s new remake of the popular 1970s police drama S.W.A.T., a biracial actor – Shemar Moore – plays the lead, police officer Daniel “Hondo” Harrelson.
A couple of decades ago, the real-life Special Weapons And Tactics division in Los Angeles was accused of racial profiling and systematic prejudice against local black residents, which led to the 1992 LA riots.
Set in South Central LA, S.W.A.T., which begins on Sunday 8th July on Sky1, sees the force aiming to bridge the divide between police and the community, providing a local-boy-done-good in its charismatic hero.
The first episode begins with a dramatic nighttime operation that ends in disaster, after the (white) team leader William “Buck” Spivey accidentally shoots and injures an unarmed black teenager. Buck is fired, and Hondo, a black officer who grew up in the local area, is promoted – jumping a couple of rungs of the ladder in the process – in an attempt to ease neighbourhood tensions.
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There are scenes early on in which our hero seems torn between his ties to the force and the community. “What colour you supposed to be, brother? Black or blue?” one resident asks Hondo during a protest rally. But Hondo soon proves the man for the job: “If anyone can bridge the gap between that community and the police, it’s you,” he’s told upon his promotion.
Nevertheless, you’d be mistaken if you thought the drama was more high brow than high octane – in the opening episode, S.W.A.T. skirts uneasily around more serious references to Black Lives Matter, before settling into all-guns-blazing action sequences, with the obligatory car chases and explosions.
But it’s a fun, watchable drama – exactly what lead actor and show producer Shemar Moore intended it to be.
“S.W.A.T. is a fun, action-packed show,” Moore tells RadioTimes.com, “and the stories are relevant, there’s nice messaging, we’re talking Black Lives Matter… cyber bullying, domestic terrorism.” No matter who you are, he adds, “you can’t not have a good time watching S.W.A.T.” He’s joined by an attractive cast, who race about in full body armour, excitedly shouting “We got rabbits!” as they pursue a suspect.
“It is a good time with these little anecdotes, these little nice messages,” he continues, “that humanise who these cops are, who the civilians are.”
“We’re trying to bridge the gap of all the fear and anger and lack of trust that’s going on between civilians and cops. That’s what S.W.A.T. is.”
Moore also shifts between no-nonsense leader (“S.W.A.T. isn’t about kickin’ ass, it’s about savin’ lives,” he reprimands a new recruit) and romantic lead, climbing into the shower with his boss in one (literally) steamy scene.
Moore, although a relative unknown on this side of the pond, has carved out an avid (and, apparently, mostly female) fanbase in the States, following his roles in CBS dramas Criminal Minds and The Young and the Restless. He’s perhaps best known for his signature catchphrase, ‘baby girl’, which he developed on Criminal Minds. He left the show two years ago, but has continued to harness the phrase on social media, referring to female fans as his “baby girl nation”.
When asked whether, in light of #MeToo, he might be tempted to phase out ‘baby girl’, Moore is non-commital. “I’ve been saying ‘baby girl’ and ‘sweet thing’ and ‘sugar tits’ – I’ve been saying all kinds of stuff – for my whole life,” he tells RadioTimes.com.
S.W.A.T. may also have a passing reference to ‘baby girl’, he teases, although he recognises that the catchphrase belongs to his Criminal Minds character, Derek Morgan.
At 48, (although he’s playing a character in his 30s), S.W.A.T. is Moore’s first lead role, and the show itself is something of a passion project for him. He even got a tattoo of the S.W.A.T. eagle on his arm over Christmas, because “it’s a milestone for me”.
Of the show, he says, “We’re talking about the Trump years without talking about Donald Trump. We’re not a political show, we’re not gonna preach to you.”
He claims repeatedly during the interview that he’s the only male black lead “on all of network TV” in the States, which isn’t quite true – Fox’s Empire has other examples – but he speaks authoritatively about the general “lack of diversity” on network TV in the US and on CBS specifically, the broadcaster that has nurtured him throughout his career. He worries that if S.W.A.T. fails, “it wouldn’t fall on CBS, it would fall on me. Because they would say… maybe a black lead doesn’t resonate”.
Moore also speaks passionately about the issues he’s encountered as a biracial man and actor. He compares attitudes towards mixed-ethnicity in the US and the UK following the recent royal wedding, which saw biracial former Suits actress Meghan Markle marry Prince Harry.
“I’ve been biracial for 48 years, but still nobody talks about it [in the States]. Barack Obama was our first black president, but nobody really talks about him being half white,” Moore says. “Ms Markle… she’s gorgeous, and she’s royalty, and she’s mixed. Which means England can see past colour, obviously. And why can’t we?”
Moore draws a comparison between stereotyping and racial profiling in the entertainment industry and in the police force, and between his character Hando and himself. Both are attempting to challenge the status quo and “promote change”.
“If I get to… show that I can carry a show,” he says, “that’s a dream come true in itself. But then… Hando faces similar circumstances by being the lead of S.W.A.T.”
On and off screen, Moore has a clear message: “We’re trying to create some unity.”
S.W.A.T. airs on Sky1 on Sunday 8th July