Fully fleshed-out recurring characters on a procedural crime drama are like open-minded conservatives; I don’t really expect to encounter many, but they do in fact exist, and it’s such a delight to come upon them. One of my favorite characters is Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, played by the award-winning S. Epatha Merkerson on the TV show Law & Order.
Law & Order ruled the airwaves with its “ripped from the headlines” plot lines for twenty years, and Lieutenant Van Buren called the fictional shots at the precinct for most of that time. At first glance, Van Buren looks like the textbook example of the Black Boss Lady trope. Many mainstream movies and scripted television shows employ this trope to provide the illusion of diversity, scoring a two-for-one by using a black woman. They make a black woman the supervising staff member so that they can say “Look, not only do we have one, but she’s even in charge!” In reality, though, these characters usually have negligible screen time and little to no dramatic development. The white leads are the ones chasing the bad guys/prosecuting the criminals/performing the surgery/saving the lives. The black authority figure is the one throwing out clichés like “Internal Affairs is gonna be all over you like white on rice!” or “Don’t try me Detective, I can have you on desk duty faster than you can say suspension.”
Also, in the world of procedural crime dramas, personal back stories take a back seat to the Body of the Week as a general rule for every character, so they are almost always non-existent for the stereotypical black authority figure. With the exception of the Very Special Episode “Aftershock” in season 6, Law & Order character back stories were not the main focus and had to get in where they fit in.
Enter Lieutenant Van Buren. Her race and gender were noted in simple, yet powerful, exchanges with her white male subordinates. However fictional this television precinct was, a black woman receiving a promotion to rank above white male detectives in 1993 would be noted. It would be mentioned and discussed, which is why I appreciated the tiny but important exchanges that happened between Chris Noth’s cocky young Detective Logan and the lieutenant. Watching early episodes of the show, my young mind understood that this would be an issue, and I appreciated the realness with which it was handled.
As I’ve said on this page before, talking about race is not what perpetuates racism, whether in our real lives or in a fictional television police precinct. The show dove all the way in, including a plot line that shrouded Van Buren’s appointment at the precinct in scandal, and later depicting her suing the department, alleging that a less-qualified white woman was unjustly promoted ahead of her.
Of course Law & Order has a history of racial diversity, notably including Richard L. Brooks as Paul Robinette in its very first season as an assistant district attorney who was not only a black man, but a dark-skinned black man rocking a glorious flat-top and performing brilliantly in the courtroom.
Look at all this glory.
So, while it is no surprise that this show would come to have the most wonderfully fleshed out Black Boss Lady in recent memory, it is still worth saluting what Merkerson, Dick Wolf, and the creative team of Law & Order were able to put together in the character of Van Buren.
In acting, there’s a specific trope that can be applied to many roles, but it might be most at home when embodied by the Black Boss Lady. It’s when you have a short verbal exchange, and you get the last word before angrily walking away or dismissing someone from your office. A sassy “read” or use of naughty language, i.e., “You better fix this today or it’s your ass, Officer!” can be a memorable moment that is crafted to hopefully make up for the Black Boss Lady’s lack of memorable full storylines, hopes, dreams, and goals. In the least capable of actors, these moments become rote “I’m saying something tough!” charades. Merkerson conveyed that Van Buren was in charge with subtlety:
At work, Van Buren sometimes spoke with a subtle neckroll or what we would call sass, but that was always a minor superficial layer on top of the genuine substance she projected, not the other way around. She even got to live outside the precinct as the seasons passed, which is also a very big deal. We met her family, learned of infidelity on the part of her husband that ended her marriage, and a diagnosis of cervical cancer stemming from HPV, contracted from her unfaithful husband. Van Buren’s illness and treatment touched on symptoms such as loss of appetite and hair loss that led to her wearing a wig, as well as the use of medical marijuana and the inherent conflict in being a lieutenant in a state that had not legalized the drug. Van Buren even had a boyfriend (later fiancé) after her marriage ended.
That’s a lot of character life to inject into a show that is decidedly not about the characters’ home lives and personal struggles. I salute the show’s creative team for daring to go there, and I salute Merkerson even more for having the acting skills to embody such a character arc with unwavering sincerity and delicate honesty.
As an actor, I look up to S. Epatha Merkerson. As a black woman who cares about our representation on screens large and small, I salute everyone whose work came together to create the character of Van Buren. On paper, she could have been an attitudinal trope. But on screen, and living in perpetuity in syndication, she’s a black woman who is strong and angry and smart and flawed and vulnerable and ill recovered and triumphant and a wife and mother and girlfriend and NYPD lieutenant and beautiful and powerful and weak and human.
I love to see black women on television being presented as human. *bangs gavel* Case closed.