How Fox’s 'Shots Fired' Is a "Mirror of America"

THR spoke with showrunners Reggie Rock-Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood and cast members Sanaa Lathan and Stephan James.
Courtesy of Sundance

On July 13, 2013, the George Zimmerman verdict rocked the nation. Zimmerman was found not guilty for the murder of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida.

The death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of Zimmerman was not the first and would not be the last racially charged slaying in the United States.

But for Shots Fired creators Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood, who are the parents to two African-American teenage boys, it hit too close to home. 

"We've had the desire since the George Zimmerman trial and being so rocked by that and seeing the reaction of our sons, who we couldn't hug and tell them it's going to be OK. As artists we started to think about how we could speak to it," Prince-Bythewood tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Premiering March 22, Fox's 10-episode limited series centers on the story of two racially charged murders. The series is first introduced with the slaying of a white college student, killed at the hands of an African-American police officer. As the investigation of the case unfolds, a second murder case is introduced — that of a black teenage boy at the hands of a white police officer. It's a case that was never investigated. The cases are investigated by Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan), an expert investigator, and Preston Terry (Stephan James), a special prosecutor sent to the town by the Department of Justice.

To talk further about the series, THR spoke with Prince-Bythewood, Rock Bythewood, Lathan and James to find out how they hope the show impacts audiences and conversations given today's political climate. 

How did the idea for the series come to be?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: It was this great collision of desire and opportunity. We've had the desire since the George Zimmerman trial and being so rocked by that and seeing the reaction of our sons, who we couldn't hug and tell them it's going to be OK. As artists we started to think about how we could speak to it. Reggie started developing the screenplay, and then after Ferguson happened, Fox came to us and said, "Would you like to do something in this space?" which shocked us. How often does a network want to deal with a subject like this? The fact that they said we can create any show we wanted and tell the story that we wanted to tell was a gift that we couldn't pass up.

What was the decision behind having the series start by flipping the narrative and having the first victim of police brutality be a white college student?

Reggie Rock Bythewood: It forces you to not be desensitized to that issue and say, "I've already seen that before. I already know everything that's going to happen." It's a way to get into someone's world before you lead them out. A lot of times when an African-American kid is killed by law enforcement, people are so completely desensitized and don't remember that this is a human being. We were really taken by when Zimmerman was on trial, people would send him donations to pay his legal fees. It was almost like they didn't see Trayvon Martin as a human being. To people like that who might have had a hard time seeing a kid as a child because he's black, we wrote it inverted and wanted people to have the opportunity to sympathize with what a mother goes through when her child is killed. But also, because there are specific issues that are specific to the black community, we had to do both cases. There were certain things that you couldn't get with just one case. 

How do you hope this series impacts the current conversations on these issues?

Stephan James: I hope it starts some whole new conversations. That's the reason I wanted to be a part of this show was just aiding that conversation. So often we're on such different sides of the spectrum that we're unable to have the conversation and have the discussion. Hopefully Shots Fired will show things in a way [people] have never seen before.

Prince-Bythewood: What we've done is really come at this subject and these instances hoping to give a view from every seat in the house. Even if someone doesn't look like you or you don't know people like this in your real life, you get to know them and you get to see their humanity and you get to empathize with them. Our hope is that through empathy that can spark change. We hope people start talking to each other and this show sparks conversation because we need to start talking to each other, not at each other.

By the end of the series, how do you hope the show impacts viewers?

James: I hope it's cathartic, and I hope it's healing for people. At a time like this where everything is so divisive, it's no secret that the world is in turmoil. A show like this is something we really need to start those discussions and hopefully we can find a way to move forward. This series offers different scenarios on how we can move.

Sanaa Lathan: I want people to be entertained. At the end of the day, it is still entertainment, and yet I hope that there's a little bit more empathy and compassion with people. We show so many different perspectives in this show and hopefully that will get people to think about what it means to be "the other" person that you're not. We have time in the 10 hours to give everyone a view from every seat at the table. We're not preaching. We're trying to bring people together.

Rock Bythewood: We don't think of it as 10 episodes of TV. We think of it as a 10-hour movie. One of the things that will happen is we're not going to leave people hanging. The mystery of [both stories] will be solved. We hope Shots Fired helps law enforcement and communities work together. 

Did you speak to families of victims of real-life cases? What research was done to tell these stories?

Lathan: I talked to a woman who actually did what Ashe's job is. She was an investigator in the Department of Justice. I got to shadow her. She had been in law enforcement for 20 years. She's Latina and she talked to me about the sexism and the racism she had to deal with. We talked about everything from how you walked in to a room to how you hold a gun to all of the emotional stuff that goes on with always having to be on guard and on the defensive. After being in law enforcement for so many years there's a different type of world view that you have. I'm such an optimist. I give people the benefit of the doubt. I'm a little bit of a hippie, and this woman is like, "No. There are bad people in the world and sometimes you do have to be on the defensive. Don't trust people right away." It was the complete opposite from where I was coming from. 

James: We watched documentaries on Trayvon and so many other unfortunate victims of police brutality and brutality by law enforcement. For me, the biggest help was Eric Holder, who is a former United States attorney general. He was the basis on how I formed this character. We had a couple of Skype meetings, which was incredibly helpful to me to shape Preston and understand the man he was. To me, Preston Terry has aspirations of being an attorney general and the president of the United States one day. 

Prince-Bythewood: We spoke with Wanda Johnson, who is the mother of Oscar Grant, who the movie Fruitvale Station was made about. She came into our writers room and spoke to our whole writing staff for a couple of hours. It just grounded us and reminded us of the responsibility we have because we're dealing with a real subject. She worked with DeWanda Wise, who plays Shameeka Campbell, to help her with her performance as well. Just speaking with her and the mothers of the movement their stories are incredible, and we hope that we honored that. 

Given today's political climate, how important is having these stories be told on television?

Rock Bythewood: We had a very intense research process, but also when we wrote this it was under a different administration. We probably assumed that the new administration would be under Hillary Clinton, so it's really interesting that we have someone like Attorney General Jeff Sessions who has come out and said that he is pulling back on these types of investigations on police. That's disturbing because you could still support police officers and thank them and applaud them for protecting you, but also be critical when police departments and officers don't do what they're supposed to do. The two leads of our show are people from the Department of Justice. We hope if nothing else, it calls at the urgency of having the Department of Justice that's really out there to serve the people.

James: It's so important. I never worked on something as timely as this. It speaks directly to this country. It is literally a mirror of America. I'm excited for people to finally see it. 

Prince-Bythewood: When we wrote it and finished it in October, we had no idea what happened would happen. Before, we really wanted to be out and be a part of the conversation, and now we feel like it's coming out at the time it was supposed to come out. People feel unprotected right now and hopeless and helpless. Our hope is that the show can spark conversation, show the importance of the Department of Justice and show the importance of resistance. 

Shots Fired premieres March 22 at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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