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In Netflix’s “Eric,” McKinley Belcher III is haunting as closeted, gay Black NYC cop in the 1980s

Author: John Casey

In the early 1990s, having just moved to Manhattan, I went to Uncle Charlies, a famous gay bar then which was in Greenwich Village. One of the first men I met was an attractive, muscular guy — older at the time, younger to me now. His name escapes me after all these years, but his story has not.When I asked him what he did for a living, he responded, “a retired cop” in air quotes. I asked him what he meant. He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that he had a partner who died of AIDS, and someone on the force discovered his secret, outed him, and he had no choice but to quit because of all the harassment. He added how much he loved being a cop.

His story, which was dormant in my mind for some time, has come roaring back recently. I thought about him when I spoke with Pittsburgh’s gay police chief, and more recently while I binged-watched Netflix’s new top-rated limited series, Eric. The program stars two-time Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch, and more prominently, queer actor McKinley Belcher III, who brilliantly plays closeted gay New York City police detective Michael Ledroit.

Entertainment Weekly called Belcher the series’ breakout star, and that would be an understatement. His depiction of Ledroit is nuanced, understated, and bursting with torment and determination. Spoiler alert: Ledroit harbors not only the secret of his sexuality, but his life-partner’s battle with AIDS, and the resentment of his partner’s family who would like nothing more than for him to go away. That’s just for starters.

Belcher explained that the producers had an officer on set as an advisor, which helped him with the dark environment of New York City at that time. “I felt like my task was to understand how the city has changed over 40 years, and then to understand how the community’s relationship to policing has changed — or not changed — since that time,” Belcher told me during a recent video call.

Beyond that, Belcher had to go much deeper. “It was incredibly personal for me because there’s so much about what Ledroit experiences as he walks through the world as a gay Black man that I’ve experienced,” Belcher explained. “My job was to just open up, and then be honest about what those experiences felt like.”

Prior to starting production on the series, Belcher had just completed Death of a Salesman on Broadway, so he could take some of the aspects of the character he portrayed, Happy Loman, and apply them to Ledroit. “They are both men who are looking for validation, so that translated directly into the series, and both characters way of dealing with a bunch of challenging things at the same time”

Besides trying to solve the cases of two missing children, Ledroit deals with some mammoth personal issues.

“He’s living with a partner who has AIDS, and then needs to mourn him in his life secretly and without anyone to really confess his heartache with. He’s trying to grieve without having the time or opportunity to do so.”

And unfortunately for Belcher, he had to do the same thing during production.

“My sister passed away while we were shooting, so I was figuring out how to grieve and process the loss and trying to grasp this mentality. But for Ledroit it was compounded by the fact that no one knew, or understood what he was going through.’

Belcher does an extraordinary job of balancing Ledroit’s stoicism. I remarked that the Ledroit seemed, not happy, not sad, but rigidly aloof from expressing any of his emotions. “So much of what Ledroit’s experiencing has to be pushed down and compressed because he really doesn’t have any place to share all the stuff that he’s going through,” Belcher observed. “Even when his partner is still alive, the way in which that home would have been a safe space before is sort of compromised because Ledroit needs to be a caretaker.”

In the series, Ledroit carries so much responsibility, not only personally but professionally. To me, his stoicism was his shield and Belcher agreed it was also a coping mechanism for him. The only time you saw Belcher happy, was when he came home, and spent time with William, who is clearly very sick. It was like Ledroit put on a happy mask – because he had to – before he entered the apartment he shared with his lover. He couldn’t let William see how he was suffering inside.

“It’s interesting you say that,” Belcher agreed. “His entire life was about protecting, protecting the missing kids he’s trying to find, protecting his lover from death, protecting his secret as a gay man. Sharing any of that burden was never an option. He could never be himself.”

That even applied when Ledroit rushes to the hospital to see his dying lover. His request to see William is denied by the attending nurse. “When Ledroit is asked, ‘Are you family?’ he can’t say yes to that. He has to use the weight of his job as a police officer, and pulls out his badge to be able to see the person that he loves.”

“He was almost completely alone and isolated in a world that was totally against him,” Belcher said. “And then when William dies, he’s confronted with the fact that William’s family not only blames him for William’s death, but kicks him out of the apartment he shared with William for seven years. At every turn, his sexuality runs against him.”

It’s not until the end that Ledroit finds some outlet as a solace in the form of an ex-lover, and even that is temporary. “You have to love yourself and understand yourself fully before you can stand on your own two feet, and at the very end of the series, Ledroit starts to recognize that fact, and he puts his best and most determined foot forward, even if it might cost him his job.”

I could not help but think about that ex-cop. I wonder what would have happened if he hung in there, accepted himself, and persevered in his job? That was 30 years ago when I met him. If he’s still alive, he’d most likely be near 80 years old. I hope that he found happiness. I hope that he took pride in who he was. I hope that he found a profession that made him happy. And, most importantly, I hope that he found true, genuine love to help ease all the pain he seemed to carry.

For Belcher, the day before he started shooting the series, he got to celebrate his true love by marrying his husband. The couple just completed their first Pride race together in Atlanta last weekend. “Well, I was just happy that he finished,” Belcher chuckled. “I’ve been thinking a lot about us, and playing Ledroit made me realize how grateful I am for what I have in my husband, and for all the opportunities I’m getting with my career lately.”

Belcher just finished shooting another Netflix limited series called Zero Day, starring alongside Robert DeNiro, Angela Bassett, among others.

“It was so exciting to work with such a great cast. They leave their celebrity behind, and show up and do the work, just like Benedict did in Eric. And personally, I understand how lucky I am to be able to show up as an openly gay Black man, and to be accepted. I’m privileged to stand on the shoulders of those who came before me. People like Colman Domingo. They are the reason I can be my authentic self.”

And as we wound down our conversation, we both agreed that had Ledroit and the cop I met decades ago served in the New York City police department today they too would most likely be able to show up for work as their authentic selves.

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Original Article on The Advocate
Author: John Casey

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