Peter Berg — actor, director, and producer — calls himself a patriot. “I admire our military, their character, code of honor, belief systems,” he told the New York Times in 2013. “I lived with the SEALs, their families, went to their funerals. I went to Iraq. Did you ever see anyone killed? I did.”
It’s little wonder, then, that Berg — who helmed uniform-filled projects like SEAL biopic Lone Survivor, military sci-fi flop Battleship, and iconic football series Friday Night Lights — can’t imagine a city without cops. He has said that after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, shock compelled him to respond. Boys in Blue, the resulting Showtime docuseries, covers the ensuing political struggle through the lens of the predominantly Black football players at North Community High School and their coaches, many of whom happen to be current or former police officers. This is a promising premise, yet despite the suggestion that it will highlight an array of perspectives, the show settles for a violent status quo.
Early in the series, principal Mauri Friestleben says North High is the “dopest, Blackest school in the state of Minnesota.” Many North students love their school, she adds, even though they don’t love the area around it. That’s fair, given that north Minneapolis neighborhoods have a deep history of disinvestment and racial segregation. Poverty rates are high, and chain stores clutter the main drags. Young people keep getting shot. Yet instead of showing the neighborhoods the principal mentions, Boys in Blue intercuts her interview with B-roll of south Minneapolis, the area of town where George Floyd was killed. Berg may have attended nearby Macalester College in the 1980s, but he makes a classic outsider’s mistake.
To that end, the series often blurs the facts — or leaves them out altogether. It includes footage of former Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who is Black, but omits any mention of the white, equally powerful former Minneapolis police union president, Bob Kroll, who opposed police reform and supported Trump through his retirement in 2021. The series’s subjects correctly state that hundreds of Minneapolis police officers left the force following the 2020 protests, but no one mentions that more than 150 of them have walked away with six-figure worker’s compensation settlements for PTSD, or that the city’s increasingly prolonged 911 response times may have more to do with a political blame game than a lack of departmental resources. Ah, and this old chestnut: Interviewees suggest that the Minneapolis Police Department has been defunded, but the MPD has more money now than it did in 2020.
When there are so many holes in the story, it’s hard to trust the storytellers. Here's what the series does get right: In 2021, a ballot question asked Minneapolis voters whether or not their police department should be replaced by a Department of Public Safety, which would employ social workers and other public safety workers in addition to, or instead of, police officers. While some Minneapolis residents relished the opportunity to change the system, many residents expressed their fear of an uncertain future. 46% of eligible residents voted in the 2021 election, and of those, 56% chose “No.” As it leads up to the election, the show balances “Vote No” messages with “Vote Yes” arguments from an organizer and a local city councilmember. It’s notable that while the series allows for real debate about the defeated ballot question, it glides over the notion of whether police departments should exist at all.
If you’ve noticed a lack of football in this review, that’s because the football adds little to the story. Boys in Blue’s gridiron scenes are confusing and rote. Episodes regularly fill time with touchdown clips, but they fail to offer a more substantial narrative than “athletes strive for victory.” As for the players, high schoolers are famously awkward even when they’re not surrounded by a film crew. These teenagers clearly love their team and coaches, but in interviews, they seem hesitant to say what they really think, enduring long pauses and reciting pat lines (“Football — it’s my way out”).
Among the young interviewees, Deshaun Hill Jr., or D. Hill, emerges as a central figure. He’s the quarterback: a quiet sophomore who mistrusts the police and dreams of playing in the NFL. In his team’s final game, he plays on a broken leg bone, earning the respect of his coaches, who brag that he’ll be “feared” across the state league. In the final episode, D. Hill is fatally shot near a bus stop. The series closes with his distraught team promising to never give up; to battle on until, as their oft-repeated Husker Prayer goes, they can’t and won’t be beat.
The coaches seem like decent guys. Charles Adams III, a Black man who served as a Minneapolis police officer for 20 years, has coached the North football team for more than a decade, and he clearly cares about his players. His father, Inspector Charlie Adams, is the team’s longtime offensive coordinator and the boss of the north side’s Fourth Precinct. Both men are relieved when the ballot question fails.
In a compelling barbershop scene, Officer Ricky Plunkett, who is also Black, defends the Minneapolis police officer who shot and killed Amir Locke mere seconds after entering a downtown Minneapolis apartment. “The suspect or whoever always has the upper hand on us,” he says, suggesting that a police officer must always protect themselves. “At the end of the night, I have to go home. I have to.”
Boys in Blue spends a lot of time with the coaches, as it must to serve its underlying premise: that police officers are valiant and necessary and that, as coach/Lieutenant Tim Lawrence says, “There are shitty cops out there … But we can’t let them win.” But it’s hard to trust the integrity of this premise when the framing around it is so slanted.
Boys in Blue premieres Friday, January 6 at 8:00 PM ET on Showtime.
Cecilia Johnson is a culture journalist and copy editor based in Minneapolis.