Despite many attempts, television has failed to represent the civil rights movement adequately. Does this 10-part drama succeed?
A year and three weeks ago in the Saint Paul suburb of Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a 32-year-old man by the name of Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer after his car was pulled over. The footage of the shootings immediate aftermath, live-streamed on Facebook by Castiles horrified girlfriend who had been travelling with him, ensured media coverage, but by this point the scenario was tragically familiar. Castile was one of 258 black men killed by police officers in the US in 2016.
That same 6 July, near Kannapolis, North Carolina, the cast and crew of a new TV show, Shots Fired, were preparing to film the pivotal scene in their 10-part drama about race and justice. This was the scene in which black police officer, Deputy Joshua Beck, shoots dead a white teenager at a traffic stop. If you remember, I think the day before Philando was shot, there was another shooting [of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge], recalls Tristan Mack Wilds, who plays Beck. So you know, Im coming on the set and Im breathing heavily and watching [Castiles] girlfriend on Facebook, like, as its going on, and its just hitting me like: Yo, this is ridiculous. When is this going to end? I remember walking into my trailer and the first thing I see is my characters police uniform and everything hit me like a tidal wave. Just hit me. I was overcome with just emotion.
That feeling, of loyalties colliding and prejudices challenged, will be familiar, to some extent, to any viewer of Shots Fired, now mid-season on Fox. Even given the charged nature of its subject matter, this is an exceptionally intense television show. Created and exec-produced by husband-and-wife team Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood, it tells the story of Gate Station, a small US city a city like Ferguson or Charlotte, or Saint Paul where centuries -long community tensions are brought to a head by the police-involved killings of two teenage boys, one black and one white. Sanaa Lathan and Stephan James star as an ex-cop-turned-expert investigator and a lawyer teamed by the Department of Justice to investigate. They are, by turns, aided and frustrated by the local political establishment, played by an impressive ensemble cast including Helen Hunt as the state governor and Richard Dreyfuss as a local real estate mogul.
Since August 2014, when protests in Ferguson, Missouri made Black Lives Matter international news, television has tried to depict the movement, with varying degrees of sensitivity and success. The last series of Scandal improved on reality with spoilers ahead a frankly fantastical ending in which the racist officer was prosecuted and anti-corruption legislation was introduced. The Good Wife wasnt so much criticised as pitied for a cringingly tone-deaf episode in which two wealthy white characters debated racial injustice in a hotel kitchen, surrounded by mostly black staff who later broke into applause. Law & Order characteristically used it as another ripped from the headlines plot. Shots Fired is palpably something different.
It was extremely emotional for all of us, recalls Wilds who, prior to being cast as Adeles love interest in her Hello video, was best known in the UK as Michael the soft-spoken corner boy from The Wire. On other sets, you can go home, decompress, watch cartoons or whatever, to just take your mind off it. The greatest and the worst part with this was you turn on your television, you open your phone up and you see another kid shot. You see another police officer getting off; you see another incident and another incident and another incident, damn near every day.