Jacksonville State University earned a name drop in a Netflix film, even if the recognition was predicated on the belief that the university is located in another state.
JSU’s Department of Criminal Justice and Forensic Investigation received a passing mention in “American Son,” a Netflix adaptation of a Broadway play that deals with gender and race bias in law enforcement.
A police officer in the film, portrayed by Jeremy Jordan in both the play and adaptation, states that he earned a “BS in forensics at Jacksonville State,” before adding, “Go, Gamecocks.”
“The story takes place in Miami, so I was looking for a university in Florida,” said Christopher Demos-Brown, Miami-based attorney and playwright of the project, before being informed in a phone interview Tuesday that JSU was, in fact, in Alabama.
“You’ve busted me,” Demos-Brown joked. “My new story will be that the character is from Birmingham.”
“Other than my shoddy research on the location, I knew that it had a good forensics program,” Demos-Brown said. The size of the school also played into his decision, he said, as did the Gamecock mascot. Demos-Brown said that his intentions were positive toward the university.
“I wanted it to be a school that people wouldn’t readily recognize or identify with, and I didn’t want Larkin to appear as if he didn’t have any training,” he said.
Mistake or not, the shout-out has been well received at the local university.
“It’s always flattering to be mentioned,” said Joseph Scott Morgan, a professor in the forensics program at JSU who has earned the department recognition in his appearances as an on-air forensics expert on CNN and various TV programs. “I’m partial, but I think we are a program of note.”
The film features an estranged couple, a black woman played by Kerry Washington and a white man, an FBI agent, portrayed by Steven Pasquale. The two meet up to search for their missing son, Jamal. Jordan’s character, a white police officer named Paul Larkin, treats the two differently, unaware at first that both are Jamal’s parents. Larkin is much more open to questions from Pasquale’s character than he is Washington’s.
“I hoped to highlight some of the issues that seep into our assumptions whether we know it or not,” Demos-Brown said. “I think it generates conversation.”
Morgan said JSU’s criminal justice department has classes designed to educate students on issues of race and gender in law enforcement.
“We have entire classes that deal with that and community interaction here,” Morgan said. “Policing is tough work, and there is a lot that goes into it. Everybody has their own particular worldview and you have to be sensitive to that.”
Richard Kania, another professor in the department, said that those issues are part of introductory classes, too.
“We have these discussions in several classes,” Kania said. “How the public perceives the criminal justice system is obviously very important.”
Kania said despite the negative portrayal of Larkin’s police work, the mention by the film of JSU is a positive.
“It’s certainly a plus for us to receive recognition,” Kania said. “We’re not a big school as far as visibility and size, but our criminal justice department is one of the best.”
The department offers bachelor's degrees in criminal justice or forensic investigation, as well as a master's degree. According to the university’s Fall 2018 factbook, 240 students were working toward degrees in the department, with another 156 listed as forensic investigation undecided.