How "Shots Fired" Kept The Fight For Social Justice Alive
Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood used their Fox limited series to continue the conversation around police reform in America. (Warning: Light spoilers ahead.)
When Fox first announced the limited-run series Shots Fired, Barack Obama was president, Loretta Lynch was in charge of the Department of Justice, and the tragic deaths of black people in the US, like Alton Sterling and Terence Crutcher, at the hands of cops put police and prison reform at the forefront of national conversation. Fast-forward seven months, one Trump inauguration, and 10 episodes later, when Shots Fired, which explored the relationship between law enforcement and civilians, came to a striking conclusion in a very different environment. From March through May, it seemed like the longest and most nuanced discussion about discrimination against black people was happening on the series.
While there are subjects Shots Fired only touched on, like Twitter’s role in social justice, husband-and-wife producing team Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood captured many subtleties in their exploration of community organization. In its story of two DOJ employees investigating the shootings of two unarmed teenagers (one white, one black), Shots Fired addressed both the way the black community tends to feel — no matter how they organize, it’ll be an issue for conservative America — and how criticisms of black people protesting often steer close to respectability politics.
Throughout its run, Shots Fired showed step by step how tension within the fictional Gate Station, North Carolina, bubbled up until riots erupted in the "The Fire This Time" episode, directed by the late Jonathan Demme. Rock Bythewood told BuzzFeed News the riot was a moment earned after the first half of the series provided “insight into the frustration that a community can feel leading to that." He added that he and Prince-Bythewood were "inspired by the Dr. King quote, ‘A riot is a language of the unheard,’" a concept they embraced throughout the series.
Another moment that toed the line of those respectability politics was when Shameeka Campbell (DeWanda Wise), the mother of one of the slain teenagers the show focused on, scolded her fellow protesters for suggesting another riot after a court decision did not go in her favor. The moment didn't suggest Shameeka was diminishing the crowd’s anger, but rather focused on her awakening as an activist, Rock Bythewood noted. To create the character of Shameeka, the couple visited and had conversations with Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant III, who was killed by police on a BART Station platform after a cop mistakenly grabbed his gun instead of his taser. Shameeka represented all the mothers of slain unarmed black civilians who were “thrust into the limelight and had to transition from being mothers to activists,” Rock Bythewood said.
The Bythewoods also took inspiration from a real-life case in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the sheriff’s department had a program through which wealthy donors were given police-issued guns and tasers, and the chance to police black neighborhoods, until one of the participants, referred to as "reserve deputies," killed an unarmed man — and the sheriff's department staged a massive cover-up. Rock Bythewood said that while the investigation brought the sheriff down, “clearly there were a lot of people within the police department that knew about it and covered it up.”
One of the biggest rewards for Rock Bythewood in making Shots Fired was the way it resonated with people in that Tulsa community. “There's a former DOJ official who is working to use Shots Fired as learning tool for police officers, and we love that," Rock Bythewood said. "It's something that we never saw coming, but that would be very gratifying.”
Prince-Bythewood said she and Rock Bythewood were not interested in creating a television series; it wasn't even on their radar. But with the recent popularity of limited series like Top of the Lake and True Detective, the Bythewoods realized TV would give them the space to tell the stories they had been developing in a more fruitful way. "The fact that we had this opportunity to tell a story like this about the subject matter the way we wanted to tell it. ... It's just been a really incredible experience," Prince-Bythewood said. Rock Bythewood used to think that there were things film could do that television just couldn't. “But in this limited series, it's actually flipped," he said. "What we're able to do in this limited series is something we couldn't do in film.” The plan was to look at Shots Fired as “as a 10-hour film, a 10-hour series," Prince-Bythewood said. "That dictated the way we wrote it and the way we cast it, the directors that we brought in.”
The Bythewoods needed the extra hours to dissect the complicated issues Shots Fired ultimately tackles. By the finale — which aired on May 24 and cut between the court decisions for the indictments of the teen boys’ killers and flashbacks of what actually happened those nights — they had successfully “dug deep into all the characters and gave them all great arcs, gave every character a beginning, middle, and end,” Rock Bythewood said.
Even though Shots Fired is over, Rock Bythewood said the bigger fight is not. The Department of Justice under Lynch, he said, knew to “not just speak with officers, but to speak with members of the community, speak with activists that are really concerned with policing in communities of color,” and to start “looking at various police departments and their patterns of practice.” But, Rock Bythewood added, “it is very important for people to be mindful of the fact that Jeff Sessions is pulling back on that.”