For black 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, 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,” remembered 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 recalled showing him a documentary about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was lynched in 1955 Mississippi for his alleged flirtations with a white woman. From there, he said, “we began to have conversations about how the criminal justice system in this country has worked and how it has not worked.” They even 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 10 episodes, 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.
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The first episode opens with the aftermath of a racially explosive incident: Joshua Beck (Mack Wilds), a black sheriff’s deputy in a mostly white police department, has shot and killed a white college student in a routine traffic stop. To ease tensions and curb any perceptions of bias, the Justice Department sends two black professionals to handle the scene: Preston Terry (Stephan James), a special prosecutor, and Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan), a seasoned investigator. The shooting draws the attention of the governor (Helen Hunt), an private-prison 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 an epidemic of black officers shooting unarmed white men. But as narrative strategy, the role reversal proves 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 said. “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 said, “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.”
The provocative subject matter of “Shots Fired” sounds more suited for cable TV, but for the show’s creators, the chance to speak to a broader audience was part of the appeal.
The Bythewoods 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.
“Under the Obama administration,” Bythewood said, “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.”
“Shots Fired” premieres at 8 p.m. March 22 on Fox.