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Where’s the Diversity in “21 Jump Street” Film?

April 21, 2011

It’s 2011 and Hollywood is reviving popular franchises from 20 years ago, including 21 Jump Street.

In the 1987 television series21 Jump Street, a unit of youthful-looking cops worked undercover in schools and colleges to fight crime. Vietnamese American actor Dustin Nguyen (Officer Harry Truman “H.T.” Ioki) and African American actors Holly Robinson Peete (Officer Judith “Judy” Hoffs) and Steven Williams (Captain Adam Fuller) starred alongside then unknown actor Johnny Depp (Officer Tom Hanson) and Peter DeLuise (Officer Doug Penhall.)

In Columbia Pictures’ remake–set to release on March 16th, 2012–Channing Tatum stars as Tom Hanson and Jonah Hill stars as Officer Penhall. Captain Fuller will be played by Ice Cube. But thus far, no African American actress or Asian American actor has been added to the lead cast of Columbia Pictures’s 21 Jump Street (2012).

Although the original 21 Jump Street TV show’s lone female lead, Officer Judy Hoffs, was played by black actress Holly Robinson Peete, the character of Judy Hoffs appears to be absent in the remake. No black actresses have been cast in lead roles in the film, and her character is not in the leaked script. As Blackvoices.com pointed out, there are several established young black actresses who could have played the role or similar roles.

Left: Holly Robinson Peete in 21 Jump Street Right: Actress Brie Larson, the female lead in the remake.

Between 1987 and 1991, Holly Robinson Peete starred in 98 episodes of 21 Jump Street, more than any other lead actor on the show. (Robinson Peete also sang the show’s theme song.) Given the lack of available opportunities for African American women in Hollywood, 21 Jump Street would have been an excellent opportunity to feature a woman of color in a lead role. Instead, the lead female character in the film is now a high school student named “Molly,” and has been cast with a white actress, Brie Larson.

“With the lack of lead roles afforded to black actresses, this would be a great opportunity for someone to be highlighted in a big studio film.” – Wilson Morales, Blackvoices.com




Holly Robinson Peete sang the 21 Jump Street theme song.

The character Officer H.T. Ioki, originated by Dustin Nguyen, has not been cast and does not appear to be in the adaptation, although the leaked script included the character in two small scenes. In the early 1990s, the character of Officer Ioki was a groundbreaking representation of a Vietnamese American character on mainstream television.

“[Dustin Nguyen] was unique at that time. It was a role that simply presented an Asian American male as a nonstereotypical Asian, and a role that wasn’t emasculated. His career, by and large, has been one of roles that more or less defied stereotypes.” Glen Mimura, professor of film and media studies at UC Irvine

The leaked script, which is likely an early draft, does call for some actors of color, but aside from the Police Captain and some of the bit-role police officers, the roles are either stereotypical (e.g. Mexican gangsters, Indian science geek) or non-speaking roles. These roles are not comparable to the major roles Dustin Nguyen and Holly Robinson Peete played in the television series.

Given the diversity in the original series, the absence of characters of color in the remake is jarring, especially since American high schools and police forces are far more diverse now than it back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Even if the production has chosen to remove the two minority Jump Street officers from the story, there was certainly an opportunity to cast actors of color as other lead characters in the film, such as the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District high school that the Hanson-Penhall duo will be infiltrating. (In 2009, only 9% of LAUSD students were white.)

It’s discouraging that actors of color had a better chance of starring on 21 Jump Street twenty years ago than they do today. Maybe the actors for these roles will be cast in coming weeks before the film goes into production? Fingers crossed. In the mean time, here’s the current line up on the film’s IMDB page.

Categories: blog, History and Concepts
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About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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  • They should of have people of different background in the first place instead of having a white cast. (duh, what’s your point)
    This movie would been a good opportunity to have a diverse cast (like not following the typical stereotypes) Example: like how Asian male is cast as a geek..cast him as a wild, don’t play by the rules character.

    Well this is hollywood..bland as usual

  • Why is Hollywood becoming Hollywhite?

  • Angela

    Channing Tatum is not playing the Tom Hanson character, nor is Ice Cube playing Captain Fuller. They have different character names.

    • From what I can gather, the early scripts gave them new names, but new promotional chatter about the film has them using the old names in homage.

  • Thawhtet8

    Why did think that 21 jump street is about shoot, bang and explosion?
    What if.. The mexican gangs are like noble (only targets drug smugglers and eschew drug smuggling)
    Indian geek being gun toting badass.

  • Nenamatahari

    Ugh. It sucks that they’re ruining 21 Jump Street. I loved that show when I was a young teen and I was TOTALLY in love with Dustin Nguyen. I was rather annoyed that all the teeny bopper magazines had mostly Johnny Depp because I wanted posters of Dustin.

  • I used to love watcing 21 Jump Street. It is sad that they are not staying true to the original show in their casting. A disgrace really.

  • Thawhtet8

    Too Late, the movie is nothing more than a parody! Not only Hollywood racebend it, but they also destroy the original!

  • Thawhtet8

    Sorry guys, the new 21 Jump Street is nothing but parody on the original and other 80s show.

  • Kiriyamamnemic

    maybe if you all never played your face card too soon you will have seen that its not a remake of the early days, they arent playing hanson and penhall as the original cast make an appearance too including BLACK holly robinson so quit your yapping and simmer down

  • Teuton

    Yes, there were several young black actresses that could fill the role. Just like there were several white men that could fill the role of the black “Heimdall” in the movie “Thor”. Where is the article on that, you anti-white hypocrite?

  • Alex

     What is this author talking about? Holly Robinson Peete made a cameo appearance in the film. I believe they offered 
    Dustin Nguyen a cameo spot as well, but he declined, thus the scene in the hotel room is shown where the TV gets shot out while his old character from an original episode of 21 Jump Street is shown. At least Johnny Depp and Peter Deluise were good sports about it.