Racism takes an immeasurable psychological toll on its victims, even in situations much less grave than those presented in Fox’s new series Shots Fired. I once had pizza with an all-black group of friends in Atlanta, and as we ate on the patio, a white man and woman strolled by. They were saturated with booze and, save for a few pieces of chain-restaurant flair, naked as the day they were born. The conversation at my table, which had been pretty light up until that point, turned to what kind of carnage we might be witnessing had it been a black couple intoxicated and nude on a major thoroughfare in a major city. Maybe the outcome might have been exactly the same — a stern talking-to, a ticket, and an awkward ride home. Still, the hypothetical scenario cast a pall over the evening that should have been free from that kind of weight. That’s racism at work.
As long as black people have feared being treated unfairly, we’ve played the “What if that had been a black person?” game. It’s only natural for that game theory to find its way into a mini-series like Shots Fired, especially in the age of Black Lives Matter and President Donald Trump. And it’s hard to imagine a team better suited to the challenge of dramatizing a racially charged police shooting over ten episodes than Gina Prince-Bythewood and her husband Reggie Rock Bythewood. She brings her feature experience, having written and directed Love & Basketball and the criminally underappreciated Beyond the Lights. He brings his cop-show writing experience from his years on New York Undercover. If anyone should be able to bring to life the nagging question of “What if Michael Brown had been white and Darren Wilson had been black?” it’s them. Based on its pilot alone, Shots Fired isn’t the show its impressive pedigree evokes, but there are enough solid and provocative ideas in it to fuel nine more episodes that accomplish a nuance the pilot lacks.
Sanaa Lathan, who worked with Prince-Bythewood on Love & Basketball, stars as Ashe Akino, a hard-living investigator who works for the Department of Justice. Ashe is paired with Preston Terry (Stephan James), a DOJ prosecutor, on an investigation into an officer-involved shooting that leaves a young, unarmed man dead in the street in Charlotte, North Carolina. This time, the dead youth is white, and the uniformed shooter is a black cop named Joshua Beck (Mack Wilds), whose youthful features probably undermine his effectiveness. The way the Bythewoods construct the story is a bit clinical, a quality Shots Fired has in common with its closest network peer, ABC’s American Crime. Joshua is viewed with skepticism by the poor black residents of the community where the shooting takes place. Meanwhile, Joshua’s overwhelmingly white police department is fully supportive, of him even after the release of a cell phone video in which a drunken Joshua says he’s glad his newly awarded badge will allow him to “shoot some crackers.”
The story is built to create as many surprising contradictions as possible, but as a result, the pilot feels overhandled. The characters and elements are tweaked so precisely, “Hour One” stops just short of feeling like the true-to-life story it clearly wants to be. The episode is certainly “ripped from the headlines,” but it feels too much like those headlines had their adjectives removed and replaced with wacky new ones in a provocative game of Mad Libs. Within minutes of arriving to question Joshua, Ashe reveals her darkest secret: She, too, was an officer once, and left the force after an on-the-job shooting destroyed her professional credibility despite her exoneration. But she’s also far more suspicious of the situation than Preston, who skates by on optimistic Baptist rhetoric and believes in the soundness and fairness of the justice system. Ashe might be the former cop with blood on her hands, but she is extra woke. Preston is steady hitting the snooze button.
The odd-couple pairing of Ashe and Preston is probably the most grating thing about Shots Fired, since it feels so aggressively conventional. Ashe is the good-time gal who plays by her own rules, and in shorthand used far too often now, we know this because she’s sexually promiscuous and drinks a lot. Preston is by the books and immediately clashes with Ashe’s unconventional ways. On one hand, the pairing is cute, almost like a comedic riff on white people’s tendency to introduce black people to each other in social and professional settings. (Preston’s superiors tell him straight up that they don’t feel comfortable going after a black cop unless a black prosecutor and investigator will be the faces of the case.) But it’s a little too buddy-cop for a show that handles such a heavy subject matter. The pilot so focuses heavily on Ashe and Preston’s complementary foibles, there’s not enough of the actual case. Hopefully that’s because the Bythewoods are holding their best material for the rest of the season.
Although the Shots Fired pilot doesn’t quite live up to the show’s promise, it lays out a solid enough case to be confident about where it’s headed. At the very least, “Hour One” does a fine job of illustrating the indignities that racism is built upon. It’s death by a thousand what ifs.