Shots Fired, Fox's new show from Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood, premiered last week. The ten-part series is a fictional account of a shooting of an unarmed citizen by a police officer in a small town in North Carolina, its aftermath, and impact on the community. Unlike the most high profile police shootings that have actually happened in America, in Shots Fired, the victim is a white boy, his killer the only black cop in an entirely white sheriff’s department.
It's a risky creative move, but the show gracefully and thoughtfully uses it as a jumping off point to tackle some of the biggest issues facing America today. The governor (Helen Hunt) immediately calls in the Department of Justice so as to avoid “another Ferguson.” In investigating the shooting, the two protagonists, DOJ investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) and prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James) discover another shooting of a black teen by police that occurred just weeks before, but which received none of the attention of the white teen’s death and seems to have actively been covered up.
Shots Fired is one of the most direct confrontations of police brutality and race I've seen on television. It peels back layer after layer of complicated ideas with each episode. Even as it tackles topics like criminal justice, private prisons, poverty, and education, Shots Fired comfortably fits them into the story, while shedding an empathetic light on an often over-sensationalized issue.
“That’s absolutely what we’re trying to do with this show,” Gina Prince-Bythewood told me over the phone. “Show humanity to characters and people who don’t always get that.” I chatted with Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood about the show, the work they put into “getting it right,” and how television can lead to meaningful change.
There must be an immense amount of pressure when it comes to accurately portraying all the facets of this story.
Reggie: One of the ways that we had to discipline ourselves was to not say everything we want to say up top. Part of what we have to do is hold back, so that there’s something for people to come back to in hour two, hour three, hour four. We would really hope an audience concerned about the social issues that we’re raising are patient enough to really see how we are dissecting this issue.
Gina: There was an absolute responsibility to get it right. We thought the best way to do that was research and meeting with people that had been affected by this. We had a great opportunity to speak with Eric Holder. We spoke with Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, people from law enforcement, investigators from the DOJ. And when you’re sitting with Wanda Johnson, telling her story, telling her son’s story as a mother: How do you continue on? How do you fight for the legacy, the memories? It wrecked us all and grounded us so deeply in our responsibility.
The way you paint the show with various emotions, whether it’s grief or anger, feels very deliberate. How do you balance that and the more procedural aspects of the show seeing how it is a very emotionally charged subject matter?
Reggie: We want this show that challenges perspectives, [but] we also wanted to be entertaining. We created a creed which is to get the audience at the edge of their seats, and while they’re leaning forward, hit ‘em with the truth.
Gina: Reggie and I wrote out an 80-page bible which laid out the entire story, how we were going to weave the mystery, the social justice, and also the personal stories. We had this road map going in and always wanted to keep the balance. Ultimately we love these kinds of shows and we wanted to write what we wanted to see. We love to create personal stories and characters whose personal lives affect their work and their work affects personal life.
Did you ever have to change the show at all to accommodate the news?
Gina: While we were filming, there was two murders that were big, one being Philando Castile. He was shot and murdered, and the majority of the cast and crew watched the live feed. They still had to come into work the next day. People were really wrecked.
Our first AD [assistant director], a woman named Shawn, she just pulled everyone together into a prayer circle, and just asked for grace. That was a very hard day. We never changed anything in our narrative, but it was influenced emotionally by what was going on in real life.
Reggie: There was actually one change that was made that was surprising and we didn’t see coming. One of our writers asked us to do it. So much of our decision and wanting to do the show happened after the Zimmerman trial. When Zimmerman was found not guilty, I was watching the verdict with our oldest boy who was 12 at the time and was rocked by the news. So I opened up the laptop, pulled up this Emmett Till documentary on YouTube and we began to talk.
From that experience, he ended up writing a short story of Trayvon Martin going to heaven to meet Emmett Till. When we [were doing the show], we had our oldest boy come in and read the story.
One of our writers, Marissa Jo Cerar, actually implemented our boy’s story. And our character Shawn reads that story to his mother. That’s the only thing that we never really anticipated. It wasn’t something out of the headlines, but it was a much more personal and extremely emotional moment to see this in a show and actually know that that part of it came from our kid.
What can this show tell us about the power of television when it comes to dealing with issues like race and police brutality?
Gina: We were very fortunate early on in our careers to have worked on A Different World. While that show was on the air, enrollment in HBCU went up tremendously, and that showed us early on the power of television. Having gay characters on air has absolutely influenced where we are today in terms of marriage equality. The fact that we can put characters on the air that an audience can start to empathize with helps to give people humanity. That’s absolutely what we’re trying to do with this show.
What is the main takeaway for each of you from Shots Fired?
Gina: My main takeaway is the desire to create empathy for people you may not encounter in the real world. It’s specifically with these mothers of the movement who are losing their children. We need everyone’s help in getting justice—it really is going to take all of us, to understand what that means even if you don’t look like them.
Reggie: The notion that we held onto early in our careers was to have a cause bigger than ourselves. This really feels like in many ways a culmination of that ideal. I feel like the fact that we hold onto that level of idealism, it’s been really gratifying and it it kind of affirms that this is the right path for us.