Anyone familiar with the track record of husband-and-wife creative duo Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood never doubted that Shots Fired was a lot more than its early commercials teasing the investigation of a Black cop, Joshua Beck (Tristan “Mack” Wilds), killing an unarmed White college student.
Instead, the Bythewoods,who have played major roles in iconic black shows and films like New York Undercover and Love & Basketball, take a complex and comprehensive look at the investigation process surrounding police killings.
Preston Terry, played by Stephan James who was Jesse Owens in Race, is the ambitious U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor leading the investigation into the black cop-white kid murder in a small North Carolina town in the new Fox drama.
His partner, Ashe Akino, a spitfire former cop who even went undercover to help take down a Colombian drug cartel, played by Sanaa Lathan. Terry is a know-it-all who Akino has to set straight on occasion. Most of the time her experience tops his schoolbook smarts but not all. Their combined efforts result in an investigation of two murders, one Black and one White, with Shots Fired putting up a mirror to how similar incidents only divided by race play out.
Change, or awareness at the very least, doesn’t usually come without outside agitation and, to that end, Pastor Janae James, played powerfully by Aisha Hinds, who is also Harriet Tubman on Underground this season, stokes the fire. A mashup of Black Lives Matter and old school Civil Rights activism, Pastor Janae moves the narrative forward. In addition to leading protest marches, she also embraces 21st century tactics. Her first coup? Uniting the grieving mothers—one White and one Black—on national television. Her next is grabbing the attention of the governor played by Helen Hunt.
DeWanda Wise, who is also Clara on Underground, is quite affecting as the dignified young mother Shameeka Campbell whose son Joey Campbell’s death at the hands of a cop had received little or no attention from the police department or the media before Pastor Janae’s interest. Even with the welcomed attention, Shameeka’s grief only compounds her fear. Because she remains in the same neighborhood, she worries that a deadly fate will also befall her youngest son Shawn (Kylen Davis) who struggles with both his brother’s death and his mother’s grief.
Shots Fired’s examination of tragic police shootings from so many different angles distinguishes it from other racially-charged television dramas. In some ways, it tries to explain why real cases like Michael Brown in Ferguson are so hard to solve even if the federal investigators get involved. Local police departments don’t welcome outsiders. Worse yet, their entanglements sometimes extend as high up as the governor. Because Black bodies are as expendable as ever, it takes an awful lot of forces working in a myriad of arenas to make Black lives matter.
Another reality is prosecutors and investigators have lives too. Ashe Akino may be on the job and doing it well but her life is in shambles. She’s as hard drinking and perhaps even as promiscuous as any man in her position but she’s far from carefree. Custody of her daughter Kai is very much at stake. Kai’s father, whom Akino got really close to on the job in Colombia, has moved on and Kai spends a lot of time with her stepmother, further upsetting Akino.
Terry isn’t without his issues. One of them is not measuring up to his pro football brother in the eyes of their father played by 24’s Dennis Haysbert. Apparently Daddy favors pro athletes over rising Eric Holders. It’s also difficult to see what side of the racial fence prep schooler Terry favors initially. He also has real trust issues, which Akino doesn’t help by linking with his brother. Once each of them scores a few wins helping the case, they start getting too friendly, which is an entirely different discussion, even if it is nice to see a more seasoned woman with a younger guy for a change.
Shots Fired is extremely layered. The Bythewoods value authenticity so much that Eric Holder spoke to their writing staff and with James; DeWanda Wise even spent time with Oscar Grant’s mother Gloria Johnson. So there’s a painful familiarity to Shots Fired, but there’s an uncomfortable realness too. The Bythewoods are almost never content to just entertain. With Shots Fired, they and all involved truly want to spark a heartfelt and productive dialogue that waters the seeds of enlightenment and change.
Shots Fired airs on Wednesdays at 8pm ET on FOX before Empire.
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of African American History For Dummies. Follow her on Twitter at @rondaracha.