Racial pro­fil­ing gets turned on its head in ‘Shots Fired’

Fox se­ries’ cre­ators flip the script on po­lice shoot­ings to ask tough ques­tions

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY SCOTT TOBIAS

For African Amer­i­can fam­i­lies, there comes a time when par­ents have to give their chil­dren “The Talk” — not about the birds and the bees, but about the dan­gers and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of be­ing black in Amer­ica. When their son was 12 years old, Reg­gie Rock Bythe­wood and Gina Prince-Bythe­wood, the cre­ators of the new Fox se­ries “Shots Fired,” had their ver­sion of The Talk when Ge­orge Zim­mer­man was ac­quit­ted in the shoot­ing of Trayvon Martin, an un­armed black teenager, un­der Flor­ida’s con­tro­ver­sial “Stand Your Ground” law.

“He was blown away when the ver­dict came in,” re­mem­bers Bythe­wood. “He was an ide­al­is­tic kid who had stud­ied Dr. [Martin Luther] King and the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and thought that a lot of the racial bi­ases that ex­ist were a thing of the past. He grew up un­der an African Amer­i­can pres­i­dent. But I think his world­view be­gan to shift at that point, to where he thought maybe things weren’t as fair as he would’ve liked on racial lines.”

Bythe­wood re­calls open­ing up his lap­top and show­ing him a doc­u­men­tary on YouTube about Em­mett Till, the 14-year-old who was lynched in 1955 Mis­sis­sippi for his al­leged flir­ta­tions with a white woman. From there, he says, “we be­gan to have con­ver­sa­tions about how the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem in this coun­try has worked and how it has not worked.” They wound up in­cor­po­rat­ing a short story about Till into the show.

Set in the fic­tional city of Gates Sta­tion, N.C., where com­mu­ni­ties are sharply di­vided along racial lines, “Shots Fired” could be de­scribed as a show that gives The Talk to the en­tire coun­try, black and white. Un­fold­ing over a com­plete, 10-episode arc, the story is packed with ripped-from-the-head­lines al­lu­sions to cases of white po­lice of­fi­cers shoot­ing un­armed blacks, but it also up­ends as­sump­tions by ask­ing view­ers to think about how they would feel were the sit­u­a­tion re­versed.

The first episode opens with the af­ter­math of a racially ex­plo­sive in­ci­dent: Joshua Beck (Mack Wilds, of “The Wire), a black sher­iff’s deputy in a mostly white po­lice depart­ment, has shot and killed a white col­lege stu­dent in a rou­tine traf­fic stop. In an ef­fort to ease ten­sions and curb any per­cep­tions of bias, the Jus­tice Depart­ment sends in two black pro­fes­sion­als to han­dle the scene: Pre­ston Terry (Stephan James), a young, by-the-book spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor, and Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan), a sea­soned in­ves­ti­ga­tor. The shoot­ing draws the at­ten­tion of the gov­er­nor (He­len Hunt), an op­por­tunis­tic pri­vateprison in­vestor (Richard Drey­fuss) and the na­tional me­dia, but a sec­ond case, in­volv­ing a black teenager gunned down by a white of­fi­cer, has been qui­etly swept un­der the rug. In “Shots Fired,” the relationship be­tween the two deaths is the mys­tery; the dis­par­ity be­tween them is the mes­sage. Though the cases bal­ance each other out, the premise is risky, be­cause there is not ex­actly an epi­demic of black of­fi­cers shoot­ing un­armed white men. But as nar­ra­tive strat­egy, the role re­ver­sal proves re­mark­ably po­tent, adding a layer to the show’s themes of racial iden­tity.

“We wanted to give peo­ple who don’t nor­mally deal with po­lice shoot­ings of un­armed cit­i­zens [the chance to] em­pathize, be­cause the vic­tim looks like them,” Prince-Bythe­wood says. “We found it fas­ci­nat­ing and trou­bling that, af­ter and dur­ing the Zim­mer­man trial, Trayvon was be­ing de­mo­nized and Zim­mer­man was sud­denly the vic­tim — that there were a large num­ber of peo­ple send­ing do­na­tions to Zim­mer­man. That’s where the em­pa­thy was go­ing.”

“We wanted to at­tack that head-on,” she says, “but we also, in deal­ing with the two mur­ders, we were also able to tackle the way that the com­mu­nity, the me­dia, law en­force­ment and the jus­tice sys­tem deals with cases based on race.”

With its provoca­tive sub­ject mat­ter, “Shots Fired” sounds more suited for a cable out­let such as HBO or FX than a ma­jor net­work such as Fox, but for the show’s cre­ators, the chance to speak to a broader au­di­ence was part of the ap­peal. The cou­ple first met as writ­ers on “A Dif­fer­ent World,” a “Cosby Show” spinoff that often ad­dressed big cul­tural is­sues in the mid­dle of dis­pens­ing the laughs. In the pre-“Se­in­feld” era, be­fore halfhour come­dies could be about noth­ing, they helped bring a show about some­thing into Amer­i­can liv­ing rooms.

The two have mostly fol­lowed sep­a­rated ca­reer paths since — Bythe­wood has nu­mer­ous cred­its in film and tele­vi­sion, in­clud­ing a four-year writ­ing stint on “New York Un­der­cover” and scripts for “Get on the Bus” and “No­to­ri­ous,” while Prince-Bythe­wood wrote and di­rected the ac­claimed ro­mances “Love & Bas­ket­ball” and “Be­yond the Lights.” But “Shots Fired” re­turns them to their roots, writ­ing smart, is­sue-ori­ented tele­vi­sion for the masses.

“Much of my early work was in com­mu­nity theater,” Bythe­wood says, “so we might do a play and there’d be 50 peo­ple in the au­di­ence, maybe 75, and you do some­thing you hope is con­science-rais­ing. The idea that we can do the same un­com­pro­mis­ing sub­ject mat­ter on net­work TV was such a great op­por­tu­nity, par­tic­u­larly be­cause we didn’t feel we had to make ev­ery­body lik­able or do all those things you might as­sume have to be done on a net­work.”

When “Shots Fired” was con­ceived and shot, the re­sults of the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion were still in ques­tion. The By the woods re­searched the show by talking to law en­force­ment of­fi­cers, moth­ers of un­armed chil­dren who were killed and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials — most no­tably Eric H. Holder Jr., Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s at­tor­ney gen­eral. Holder often re­ferred to the Civil Rights Di­vi­sion as the “crown jewel” of the Jus­tice Depart­ment, but now that Don­ald Trump is pres­i­dent and Jeff Sessions is at­tor­ney gen­eral, civil rights groups are con­cerned that the depart­ment might not share their pri­or­i­ties. The change in gov­ern­ment also stands to put “Shots Fired” un­der a dif­fer­ent light.

“Un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Bythe­wood says, “the Jus­tice Depart­ment re­ally looked at a lot of th­ese po­lice de­part­ments for racial bias and, in some cases, found that changes needed to be im­ple­mented. I’m very cu­ri­ous to see what this new Jus­tice Depart­ment is go­ing to do, but our nar­ra­tive high­lights the rel­e­vance of hav­ing a Civil Rights Di­vi­sion that will not just serve peo­ple in gov­ern­ment, but ac­tu­ally serve the peo­ple they’re in­tended to serve.

“Ideally, ‘Shots Fired’ will chal­lenge peo­ple’s per­spec­tives — ev­ery­day cit­i­zens, com­mu­nity lead­ers, law en­force­ment and oth­ers. Even our cur­rent gov­ern­ment.”

FRED NOR­RIS/FOX

Mack Wilds, who por­trays a sher­iff ’s deputy, ap­pears in the pi­lot episode of “Shots Fired.” Show cre­ators Reg­gie Rock Bythe­wood and Gina PrinceBythe­wood found their in­spi­ra­tion af­ter Ge­orge Zim­mer­man was ac­quit­ted in the fa­tal shoot­ing of un­armed black teen Trayvon Martin.

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