'we can't afford to go low'

‘Conviction’ star Merrin Dungey on being black in America

ABC

Last night’s episode of Conviction was told primarily through the eyes of former police detective Maxine Bohen, who is black. The case was a particular sore point for her because it was about a Black Lives Matter advocate who was put away for shooting and murdering a cop. It’s par for the course for the ABC drama, which follows a unit that investigates possible wrongful convictions. While the show is only in its first season, it has tackled cases on hate crimes, racial bias, and sexual assault.

I spoke to Merrin Dungey, who plays Bohen, after the election. So, obviously, my first question was: How are you feeling today? “You know,” she said with a laugh. “I feel a lot better today than I did yesterday, I’ll tell you that.”

Dungey told me she has a particular affection for her character since she’s always wanted to play a detective. “I’ve been playing Charlie’s Angel’s with my sisters since I was little. So the day I got fitted for my trench coat I was like, ah, it’s home,” said Dungey. It’s been a long time coming–she’s had recurring roles as detective-adjacent characters on Alias and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. In fact, it’s such a natural fit that it’s a surprise to hear that the statuesque woman, with her forthright line delivery and arch humor, hasn’t played one before. “I’ve played the black best friend a million different times. It’s nice to have a character that is not just there to serve others and their storyline.”

One great element of the episode, titled “StayWoke,” is how Hayes Morrison (Hayley Atwell), a former president’s daughter and an unruly and charming public figure, is excited to “spark” a discussion among her employees, goading them on when they talk about racial bias and privilege. Bohen says that such a discussion–as she reaches out to the white husband of the murdered cop and the privileged white witness that put the advocate away–weighs much more heavily on her than it does on her white boss.

“It’s one thing to walk together, we all have our crosses to bear,” said Dungey. “As much as I appreciate her character trying, it’s just different for her. She uses her privilege to help others, but it is a different thing for her.” This is a discussion that could be taken from her real life. “When you get pulled over—you know, I’ve been pulled over and…I have to be careful. You have to be careful.”

In the episode the characters talk about real cases of black men and women being shot by the police. Bohen even seeks advice from her father, also a former cop, and they talk about the particular push and pull of their jobs:

“I’m a cop, and a woman and a mother and an addict–”

“Recovering addict,” her father interjects.

“And I’m black. And sometimes I realize that’s all anybody sees,” she says. “Race trumps everything. I didn’t choose it, I can’t escape it–not that I’d want to…And that’s how the world sees Ashton. I’m raising a black boy in America. How do I keep him safe?”

MERRIN DUNGEY, NIGEL GIBBSABC

Conviction

“[For my character,] being a black woman and being a former police detective and a mother of a black son, that was the scene that hit me the hardest,” said Dungey, who said it made her think of her African American friends with sons. “What do you say when this happens?” she said, echoing her character’s words. “What do you say when someone else is beaten? What do you say, how do you say it? How do we stay safe and keep going?”

Dungey says this is related to an ongoing conversation with her white British husband regarding their two daughters in elementary school. “The girls know that they’re black and they should be proud of that.” In fact, one of her daughters wrote an essay about how Dungey’s sister became the first African American to run a network.

“And then my husband of course is like, ‘With all kids you don’t want them to see color in a way that you’re this and that makes you this or you’re this…’ Well you don’t want them to see colors because of stereotypes, but of course they see color because they can see and when they draw themselves they draw themselves brown and with curly hair,” said Dungey. “They are aware. And as a mom it’s important to me, the discussions are done because when one of our daughters goes out with her two white friends when they’re older and they go to the store, the store owners will look at my daughter and make sure she’s not stealing because that’s what happens because that’s just a fact.”

She went on. “When I walk into a drug store–this happened to me last week and I’m there in my fancy coat and my Prada sunglasses and whatever, but they are still looking and it’s a fact. It’s a part of being African American in the world. I don’t want my daughter to be out with those girls and think that that’s going to happen. Not only should she not steal, but she needs to know you have to work harder.” Dungey specifically referenced the famous speech from Scandal that Kerry Washington’s character gets from her father about always needing to be better and needing to work harder than everyone else. “Every woman of color wept at this,” said Dungey. “It’s a speech we all heard growing up.”

“And think about this election,” she said. “If President Obama had said an eighth, a tenth, a one-thousandth of what Donald Trump had said, it would have been over before it began. And it’s the same things being a woman. Hillary Clinton had a few email issues and it’s all, “lock her up, put her in jail.” And he’s fraudulent and on trial for a retail case, but he’s our president-elect? You know, that is the clearest case of race division I can ever cite for you and sexism. Right there.”

“If they go low, we go high,” Dungey said. “Because we can’t afford to go low. We go low, we go to jail.”