The atmosphere is charged in 1948 Atlanta, Georgia, with the formation of an eight-member unit of “Colored” police officers. Constrained by the endemic white/black prohibitions of the era, these foot-patrol officers are not assigned official vehicles and must call for white officers when engaging a white man. They patrol the “Negro” outskirts of the city, commonly referred to as “Darktown”: “They were not permitted to correct the biggest problems and when they dared try, they created worse disasters.”
When patrolmen Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith confront a white man who has driven into a newly-constructed light post, they realize he has a passenger: a beautiful black woman in a yellow sundress. Boggs and Smith request the aid of a white officer as they chase the automobile on foot. Just before the patrol car drives up, the driver stops and the female passenger runs down an alley. The expected “good ‘ole boy” routine ensues, exacerbated by the arrival of Officers Dunlow and Rakestraw. Boggs and Smith are dismissed as Dunlow and the white driver begin a chorus of carefully orchestrated racial insults. The driver is released without charges by Dunlow. Not long after, while patrolling at night, Boggs and Smith discover the female passenger behind a building in Darktown, with only the yellow sundress and heart-shaped locket to help identify the body--and the bullet holes that put an end to her life.
While Smith keeps a low profile to avoid unnecessary confrontations with the white cops, Boggs is more conflicted. The son of a preacher, he sees the small group of black officers in the Atlanta Police Department as a step toward changing the entrenched segregation that afflicts the department and the streets of the city. Closeted in a separate building with substandard facilities and supplies, these officers are not allowed to enter the official Atlanta Police Department building through the front door, nor are they allowed to wear uniforms while off-duty.
They are required to change into uniforms when testifying in court, then change back into civilian clothes before returning to their headquarters.
Officer Dunlow, an old-school cop, is a fearful presence, a cruel bully who is openly bigoted and unafraid to wield his power over citizens of color, even the cadre of black officers. He rampages through Darktown, using violence with impunity. But his partner, Denny Rakestraw, is not cut from the same cloth. Unlike Dunlow, “Rake” is a returning vet--as are Boggs and Smith--his perspective broadened by experience in the war. Often appalled by Dunlow’s behavior and ill-use of black residents of the city, Rake is caught in a trap: the need to fit in with his fellow (white) officers and avoid exposure in the department, especially the scorn of his arrogant, vengeful partner, while learning how a helpless young woman, Lily Ellsworth (the girl in the yellow sundress), could come to such a tragic end. He recognizes a man of similar values in Boggs, but while Rake is secure in the world of the whites, Boggs has fewer options, even with a badge conferred by the city. Yet both are compelled to uncover the truth.
Graft and corruption thrive in the city, black-skinned people often accused, their rights denied by the established justice system. While the death of Lily Ellsworth is incidental in the grand scheme of things, the heinous crime is important to Boggs and Rake. Overmatched, they refuse to bow to the status quo, risking ostracism and retaliation, even death. Mullen meticulously examines post-World War II Atlanta, returning soldiers fighting for the freedom of others while locked in the jaws of segregation at home, people of color suffering Jim Crow restrictions and the threat of the Klan. Mullen exposes this ugly underbelly with the brutal death of a black girl cruelly cast aside, a connected white man avoiding responsibility under cover of graft and corruption. Each slight is painful, the violence casual and demeaning.
The façade of civility is stripped away in scene after scene, society grown more sophisticated over time, a pattern that continues to perpetuate itself in new guises.