So What Did You Think Of Shots Fired Last Night?
Black officer. White victim. A community divided even before shots ring out in fictional Gate Station, NC. The opening of FOX’s 10-hour, limited mini-series “Shots Fired” sets the stage for a 60-minute investigation of racial divisiveness and growing tensions between police officers and the communities they are charged with protecting. While tackling racism and questionable police decision-making is not foreign to primetime dramas, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood turn this motif on its head by bucking what has unfortunately become an all-to-common headline of a Black teenager being killed at the hands of a white police officer, and flipping those roles. It isn’t before long that the Department of Justice becomes involved in the investigation, sending special prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephen James) and investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) down to North Carolina to unearth exactly what has happened. The point is clearly made that their assignments to this case aren’t simply based on their expertise, but on their race as well — ensuring less scrutiny than if a white prosecutor and white investigator were tapped to look into the case.
While at times “Shots Fired” falls very much in line with other procedural crime dramas, there is no doubt that James and Lathan shine in their respective roles and help to set this series apart from others in the genre. For his part, James plays the Ivy-league educated and inspired prosecutor who at first seems to embrace his role as judge and jury a bit too strongly. In one of the premiere’s most dynamic scenes, James’ character approaches his post-shooting meeting with officer Joshua Beck (played by Tristan Wilds) as more of an interrogation, defaulting to assumptions that there is more to Beck’s story than meets the eye. Viewers are initially given the impression that James’ seemingly affluent beginnings have caused a cultural disconnect that makes him unable or unwilling to relate to Beck. Viewers are, at first, left with concerns and suspicions. But in one of the most stunning scenes in the premiere, Terry takes the podium at a press conference to address the shooting. While he begins providing the gathered crowd of journalists with generic on-script answers, a female community member’s voice pierces the noise and says, “What I don’t understand is why you’re here? All the murdering of unarmed Black men by police all across this country and this is the one the government is investigating?” Terry is immediately roused into delivering a stirring speech that shows not only his unrelenting quest for truth, but his visceral connection to the plight of Black men across this nation. He references cases like Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and says “…I am sickened. Sickened by the utter lack of humanity displayed by those officers, angered at the arrogance of their lies. See now they knew there would be an assumption of innocence, not because of blue, but because of white.”
Lathan’s Ashe Akino, on the other hand, is positioned as our flawed heroine. Viewers are quickly introduced to Akino’s tumultuous personal life and her emotional responses to high-pressure situations. But during the aforementioned interrogation scene, Akino has a distinctly different tone than Perry. She is relatable, she’s personable, she leverages an emotional connection to Beck to earn his trust and extract the information she needs. Akino serves as a strong dramatic foil to Perry’s character, but one that can also help inform and humanize him as well. When it is discovered that a Black teenager was recently murdered and the Gate Station community believes the police had a part in it, Akino pushes Perry to expand the scope of their investigation to include looking into the death of the teen, Joey Campbell. While he extols the need to be patient and handle one case at a time, Akino pushes the issue and helps open Perry’s eyes to a possible connection between the two killings. Lathan’s portrayal of Akino is one of great intensity but still exhibits the restraint to not become a parody of itself, in other words, not just another tough female cop.
While James and Lathan are supported by a wonderfully talented ensemble, the show does fall into expected narrative traps: Perry has sex with the governor’s white aide, Akino has sex with Perry’s brother, viewers are left wondering if Perry and Akino will have a fling of their own, Akino’s ex files a motion for sole custody, etc. In short, there are a lot of dramatic twists and turns that have a tinge of primetime drama desperation to them. With such a strong premise, it’s disappointing that such transparent attempts at engaging viewers were employed. They do little to truly add to the story and more serve as distraction tactics and cheap intrigue. But despite these downbeats, “Shots Fired” still emerged a promising addition to Wednesday’s TV line-up. The show’s desire to continue a conversation on one of the most hot-button topics in our world today is bold, brave and much needed. While we hope some of the short-comings of the premiere get ironed out in the weeks to come, there’s no denying that “Shots Fired” has the talent a story of this magnitude needs. Here’s to hoping the narrative evolves into a more apt reflection of not only the show’s strong leads, but of the importance of painting an honest picture of the racial and socio-political dynamics defining communities across the United States today.