61st Street is a detailed look at the complicated and hard-fought war against crime, the police, the courts in Chicago and how society and the judicial system treat the most vulnerable. Similar to David Simon’s The Wire and We Own This City, it looks at the underbelly of the connected systems — slowly peeling back their layers to expose their bias and flaws while focusing on the lives the system touches.
Created by Peter Moffat (Your Honor, Criminal Justice, The Village), AMC’s legal drama 61st Street is a heart-wrenching yet all too familiar tale about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. In the series, Moses Johnson, the neighborhood’s track star, is a young Black man with a bright future with a promising future — headed for college on a scholarship. Instead of long goodbyes to his mother from his campus dorm, he is targeted by the Chicago Police Department under suspicions of being a gang member. A cop ends up dead, and Moses is charged with his murder. While another officers’ testimony could exonerate Moses — his lieutenant, played by Holt McCallany, encourages him to change his story.
Tension only escalates as Moses struggles through the investigation as guilt and betrayal towards his community weighs heavily on his shoulders. Andrene Ward-Hammond (Your Honor) is Norma Johnson, Moses’ mom who will stop at nothing to protect her son from being forgotten in the criminal system, even if all she can do is tell him to do is “run.”
The Koalition spoke to Ward-Hammond about Norma’s choices, the loss of Norma’s father to gang life, tackling the role and more.
The moment she told her son to run, Norma only thought about “protecting her child. Black and Brown people have a relationship with the police that is not friendly. They already assumed he was out there for anything less than blood. [Telling him to run] is really to protect him. Would I see him again? Probably not, but I want to ensure that, if anything, he can make it out there, because I know who my child is and I think that’s the scariest part of raising Black children, specifically Black men who are seen as a threat before they’re seen as anything else.”
“61st Street is not so much to focus on the judicial system as what it does to those that it affects and it focuses on the family more than anything, it focuses on the people outside of it. It also doesn’t tell you who to support. It says these are the circumstances and you as a viewer have to lean where your more moral gauge. 61st Street is less about ‘okay this is the bad guy, and this is the good guy;’ it’s where do you lean? What do the circumstances do for you as a viewer?’
Norma Johnson also knows what the police do to young Black men like her son. When the police raid the apartment of Moses’ mother, they treat Norma like a criminal, and assume that because the children’s father was a gang member, they are too. Therefore, she and her son are lying to them about their criminal activity. Not getting the answers they want; the police conveniently find something to take both Norma and her child in. At this moment, the tone is set, and the message is clear. Institutional racism is inherent in America’s law enforcement system, and Norma is sick of its daily cycle.
“[Norma] specifically wanted Moses not to go down the same path [as his father]. That’s not how he was raised. [Moses] is a stellar student, he is bound for college, he has his scholarship, so I am trying my best as Norma to steer him in another direction.”
As time runs out for Moses and the Johnson family, there is a glimmer of hope when Franklin Roberts (Courtney B. Vance) decides to take the case. This disillusioned lawyer with a cancer diagnosis who is about to retire. He looks and he feels tired by the whole justice system, but he sees something in himself with Moses and his case.
“Norma trusts Franklin because she’s “seen him daily as a public defender. She watched him defend Black men, Black women [and] Black kids in the system, so I should not want to trust anybody else who’s willing to come to save my child. [He] came to [Norma] and said, ‘I am here to do [what] nobody else has come to do at this point.’ I know his character, so why would I believe otherwise that he wouldn’t be able to do this for him. We can’t win them all, but I know the reputation he has and the fight he has in him, and he has done a great job in the past in [Norma’s] eyes. [The one case we see him lose] does not define his work.”
Together Norma who is not a grieving mother in the background, and Franklin are determined to find the truth. This refusal to back down and find justice for Moses is the defining moment for Norma as a mother and represents the “mama bear” in everyone.
“[Norma] fights hard for [her] kids. Just even as a mother beyond being Norma, I fight hard for my child. It’s a fight-or-flight thing and I know how I’m seen as a Black woman just in general, so I’m going to fight hard to ensure that me and mine are forever safe. [Norma] has many defining moments in [the series] but she is warm, she is loving, she is caring, but she is also strong, and she will kill, [and] she will hurt somebody for hers. [Norma] knows who [her] kids are, [she] knows at the at the core and knew who Moses was, so you couldn’t tell [her] who my child was, and I stand on that as Andrene as Norma.”
61st Street airs Sundays on AMC and streaming on AMC+. Check out our full interview in the video above.