The debut installment of BET’s anthology series “Tales,” which aired Tuesday night, creates not just a story, but really, a whole world out of the lyrics of NWA’s “F—k tha Police.” “Tales,” which will air through the summer, aims to do this for a variety of different rap songs, including Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “I Got a Story to Tell,” in subsequent episodes.
But with “F—k tha Police,” a track whose trenchant lyrics about police brutality are as unsettlingly relevant today as they were in 1988, “Tales’” approach makes for an episode that feels like an installment of “Black Mirror,” aligned with American racial history. Where NWA presented a blistering recitation of the abuses committed by the police against black people, “Tales”’ “F—k tha Police” switches the races: Instead of an oppressed black underclass, the standalone episode imagines a world where it’s whites who live in “the jungle,” segregated from their black neighbors and disproportionately targeted for “random” searches. The episode starts when a young white man is gunned down outside the projects he lives in, in full view of his friends and family. The two black police officers act with impunity because they know they’ll get away with it; the judge, lawyers, politicians, and jurors are all black, too.
The primary action of this episode of “Tales,” which was created and executive produced by record executive Irv Gotti, is that Brody (Matthew Noszka), a white prep chef in the household of a rich black television personality (Clifton Powell), agrees to testify in court about his friend’s murder. But it’s obviously not so simple: By trying to speak up, Brody’s in the line of fire, making himself and his family a target. He becomes entangled in a romance with his boss’ wife, Jenny (Nafessa Williams, who was also in “Twin Peaks: The Return”). But while Jenny says she wants to support Brody, he discovers she’s not willing to risk her privilege to help him. Prosecutor Ray Vance (Boris Kodjoe) is the lone black man trying to do the right thing for the marginalized white community, but ultimately the system proves to be too powerful for him to change.
“F—k tha Police’s” world is a little more racially segregated than our own. There’s a strict curfew imposed on the unnamed city’s white citizens, with walls and checkpoints around the cordoned-off ghetto they’re allowed to live in. White people traveling outside “the free zone” to work are required to have travel authorization — a permission slip that looks like an ID card — on them at all times. The police, who are all black with just a few exceptions, harass and frisk white men with startling, violent impunity. I’d like to think this is a dystopia. But through the lens of oppression these structures are close enough to what we impose on our black citizens that most of the time, “F—k tha Police” is disturbingly recognizable.
Elements of the episode’s storytelling are specific call-outs to lyrics from the NWA song, including the pat-down’s invasive crotch-searching (“Search a nigga down, and grabbing his nuts”) and the emphasis on testimony. The song also explicitly introduces the idea of turning the tables in the racial dynamic, and that sentiment trickles down to the individual frustrations of the actors. Brody’s older brother (Chet Hanks), sporting a grill, a muscle tee, and sleeves of tattoos, tells the cops he’d like to take them on in a fair fight, one-on-one, to show them he could really fight them. They gang up on him and beat the crap out of him. The episode ends just as every court case about police brutality seems to end: With a triumphant acquittal for the cops and a furious, frustrated protest from the oppressed.
The show ends with a montage of protests and death throughout history that stays within its conceit; Brody Jenner, the son of Caitlyn Jenner and real-life quasi-star, is depicted in a sepia-toned lynching scene, while Nick Cassavetes, in “footage” time-stamped to 1992, is a white-haired Rodney-King stand-in as police viciously assault him. Much like “F—k tha Police,” the song, the premiere of “Tales” indicates how violent uprising is the natural response to oppression. It’s only after the episode ends that the show scrolls the names of 500 black people killed in police custody on the screen, too fast to read or even process — five hundred deaths in just the past five years.
Admittedly, it’s not exactly a novel idea to flip the racial narrative. But “F—k the Police” is surprisingly effective, noting how pervasive the structure of racial oppression by how carefully it works to make its conceit credible. It’s a slightly melodramatic approach, but it’s difficult to stop thinking about, too: The world we live in is so comfortably set in its flawed ways, that seeing it turned upside down proves to be alarmingly insightful. It is disappointing, perhaps, that a viewer would need to feel that they themselves could be discriminated against before they could understand how systematic prejudice works. On the other hand, if it’s effective, it would be wonderful to see a hundred more versions of “Tales”’ “F—k tha Police,” cutting across race and class and gender and sexuality.