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‘Shots Fired’ Team Talks Emotional Process of Dramatizing Police Shootings

Variety logo Variety 1/11/2017 Oriana Schwindt
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Fox’s “Shots Fired” opens with a police shooting. But unlike many of the widely publicized police shootings of unarmed black men, creators Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Bythewood begin their 10-part series with a young black police officer shooting a young, unarmed white man in a small town in North Carolina.

That may seem a counterintuitive plot point for the creators, whose aim, as Bythewood told reporters at the Television Critics Association winter press tour Wednesday, was to perform “an autopsy of a town like Ferguson,” where teenager Mike Brown was shot and killed in 2015. Brown’s killing, and the lack of prosecution for the officer who shot him, inspired months of protests in the Missouri town outside St. Louis.

But Prince-Bythewood and Bythewood, who are African-American, defended the choice to swap the races of the officer and victim. “You see this in the news all the time. It’s easy for people to watch the news and, if you don’t identify with what’s on the screen, turn it off,” Prince-Bythewood said. “We wanted to enable folks who don’t normally sympathize with someone to do so.”

And while the show opens with the black officer killing the white man, another narrative quickly emerges of the unsolved shooting of a black boy that isn’t garnering anywhere near the amount of media attention. “As you get further in, you see how the murders of these two young boys are treated,” Gina Bythewood said.

For the creators, it was important for their cast to delve into the worlds their characters inhabit. Mack Wilds, who plays the black officer, grew up in New York City with a Black Panther uncle. “Gina had to come and console me the day of the Philando Castile situation,” Wilds said. “I had to wear my uniform, and I couldn’t even stand to look at it.” But he nevertheless received a bit of a reality check when on a ridealong with an officer in Manhattan while doing research, when he saw how quickly a confrontation with a young black teen escalated.

The teen was smoking marijuana in the stairwell of a project; the officer Wilds was with had asked the teen to get out of the stairway, and an argument broke out. “They didn’t do anything but tell him to get out of the staircase and it was instantly hostile,” Wilds said. “It was crazy to see the other side of it.” It added another layer to Wilds’ character, who has to figure out how to be a young black man and an officer in a society that doesn’t necessarily know how to view someone who is both.

Not that the Black Lives Matter movement is given short shrift at the expense of exploring the complexity of relationships between police and minority communities. DeWanda Wise plays the mother of the slain black boy, and she attended an annual event in Oakland, Calif., held by Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, the young black man whose death was the basis for the movie “Fruitvale Station.”

“It was an outstanding foundation for me, to be there in this room full of women who for years have been living with this grief,” Wise said. “Often when we see grief displayed it’s this one-note histrionic thing. But before that it’s this very, it’s a layered thing.”

Amid all the talk of messages and exploring the underlying sources of racial tension in our country, the cast and producers emphasized the show is still meant to entertain, as well. “It’s a whodunit and a whydunit,” Bythewood said.

(Pictured: “Shots Fired” exec producers Gina Prince-Bythewood, Reggie Bythewood, Brian Grazer) 

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