The Department of Justice sends an up-and-coming lawyer, Preston Terry (Selma, Race), and a seasoned investigator, Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan, The Best Man series, Love & Basketball), to investigate the shooting of a white college student by an African American sheriff’s deputy in a small, North Carolina town. But their investigation is a tangled web of lies and layers of racism that intersect with the murder of a black teenager previously – that no one has explored. This is the premise of FOX’s Shots Fired, created and written by Gina Prince-Blythewood (Secret Life of Bees, Beyond the Lights) and Reggie Rock Blythewood, cancelled before it even aired its final season one episode. Was it too on-point for the world we live in today?
Over the course of its ten episodes, the show revealed secrets about the practices of the sheriff’s department, through the life of the African American deputy, Josh Beck (Tristan Wilds), his commanding officer, Lieutenant Breeland (Stephen Moyer, True Blood), and the sheriff, Daniel Platt (Will Patton, Remember the Titans, Armaggedon). Local African American pastor Janae James (Aisha Hinds, The Shield, Under the Dome) wields power in the town, especially in the low economy area where the bulk of the black population lives, called The Houses; Governor Patricia Eamons (Helen Hunt, Mad About You, As Good As It Gets) has authority, but much of her power comes from well-to-do financial investors like real estate magnate Arlen Cox (Richard Dreyfuss, Mr. Holland’s Opus, American Graffiti).
This is a tangled political, social, and economic web that the African American team from the DOJ must investigate, but the lines they cross are far from easy. The blue line of the police force, the black and white line of race, and the green line of financial power and poverty threaten them at every turn; no one wants Terry and Akino there, because they might reveal the truth and exacerbate the problems before they return to Washington, D.C. If no one wants the truth to be known, how can the investigators get anywhere?
As Terry and Akino dig, they experience the deep anger and sadness of the dead college student’s mother, Alicia Carr (Jill Hennessey, Law & Order), and that of the dead African American teen killed just weeks earlier, Shameeka Campbell (newcomer DeWanda Wise). While the Blythwoods are wrapping a murder mystery into the FOX episode, the audience is gripped by the palpable grief of white and black mothers, the fear of the police force when wrestling with violence and crime, the years of hurt, abuse, and pain inflicted on the African American community, and the extent to which money, power, and white privilege are latent below the surface… until they’re not.
Adding depth to Terry and Akino are their own backstories: Terry is the less-favored brother to a Carolina Panthers star who is fighting to be accepted as a real lawyer within the DOJ; Akino is fighting for custody of her daughter, aware of her own mistakes on the job and in marriage. Both are African American, and their own biases (and perceived biases) cause them trouble as they investigate the sheriff’s department for the death of the white college student … and later the death of the seventeen-year-old African American teen.
In the midst of a world where race seems involved in every (other?) news story, Shots Fired entertained, challenged, angered, and saddened me. One African American friend told me he didn’t need to watch the show because it’s his reality; the events involving Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice… the list goes on and on… prove that what he says is all too true.
As a media critic and a pastor, I found myself torn between the desire to see “whodunit?” and a way forward through the racism and injustice. Shots Fired doesn’t wrap it all up nicely, cutely, in a box. But it does challenge our own impressions, insecurities, privilege, power, and bias. It does demand that we consider – those who embrace faith – where the line is between peaceful compassion toward reconciliation and angry, proactive action to justice. With a few exceptions, Shots Fired brings a multifaceted approach to a centuries’ old struggle in the United States and asks us to move.
I’m just not sure the audience was ready for it given the ratings. Hopefully, others will watch it on Hulu, On Demand, etc. because the truth is this:
We need more Shots Fired. We need more prayer. We need more action. We can’t watch silently any longer.