This was posted Wednesday, March 22, 2017 by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
After the Ferguson protests in 2014 over the fatal shooting of black teen Michael Brown by a white officer, Fox executives sought out Gina Prince-Bythewood ("Beyond the Lights") and her husband Reggie Rock Bythewood ("New York Undercover") to come up with a show that addresses the complicated issues stemming from that case.
By coincidence, Rock Bythewood was already planning a film focused on that subject line. Ultimately, the two sides decided on a 10-part anthology dubbed "Shots Fired" that debuts Wednesday, March 22 at 8 p.m. on Fox.
"We've always thought of this as a 10-hour film," Rock Bythewood said in an interview recently at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta, where a screening of the first episode was held earlier this month. "The ability to do that was very enticing."
And since this is an anthology and not a long-term commitment, the producers were able to nab the likes of Helen Hunt as the North Carolina governor, Richard Dreyfuss as a real estate mogul, Stephen Moyer as a police officer and Sanaa Lathan as a Department of Justice investigator.
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The set up is intriguing: a black cop shoots a white person dead in a heavily black neighborhood in a small North Carolina town, flipping the script so to speak. The governor asks for two DOJ investigators, both black, to look into this heavily covered tragedy. They soon discover a young black man was murdered two weeks earlier in the same neighborhood by a white cop but that case was barely covered.
That discrepancy causes fresh divisions and interesting alliances.
The two actresses who play the victims' moms Jill Hennessey ("Law & Order") and DeWanda Wise ("Underground") came to Atlanta with Rock Bythewood to screen the first episode for the Black Women Film Network conference.
I spoke with Rock Bythewood for 20 minutes about how he conceived the show and how they prepared for it. Here are some excerpts:
Being on broadcast TV: "Our only limitations were vulgarity. In terms of storytelling and characters, in terms of the ability to challenge perceptions, not at all. We want to be entertaining while attempting to raise consciousness. I'm blown away what we can do on broadcast TV now."
On nabbing Richard Dreyfuss: "We had a five-hour meeting with him. I don't believe he's ever done network TV. He was Bernie Madoff on HBO. He really cares about the world and social justice. We had a really interesting conversation."
On Helen Hunt's character: "She's so smart. It was amazing to meet her. Her character was initially a Republican. Helen suggested that felt a little easy. One thing we always want to do is complicate these characters. So we made her a Democrat."
Why North Carolina? "We wanted to shoot in a small Southern town. We looked all over. On a practical level, Charlotte had tax incentives. And this was shot before the bathroom ban happened. It would have given us pause."
Helping DeWanda Rise and Jill Hennesy get in character: He said they met with several of the mothers of fallen victims such as the moms of Travyon Martin, Sandra Bland and Oscar Grant. "They're part of a club nobody wants to be in."
Meeting with former Attorney General Eric Holder and former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly: "Our job is to make our characters are three dimensional as possible. We want these to be real human beings. So we talked to real human beings."
Sanaa Lathan's character: "She's the heroine. A lot of times broadcast TV pressures you to make someone likable. We just focused on her as human. She is flawed. She is also committed to her job and committed to her daughter. It was fascinating to write her character, really fascinating."
What he hopes they pull off for the viewer: "We are trying to be as honest as possible. It's not a documentary. There's the entertainment factor. We have great music. We try to create a mystery that keeps people on the edge of their seat. We hope when it's all said and done, they enjoyed taking the journey these characters are taking and walk away with a stronger perspective on what could be done to create a justice system that works for everybody." (From 25 critics on Metacritic, 16 gave it a positive review and nine gave it a mixed review, averaging out to a decent score of 66 out of 100.)
Rational thought of the day: "Polices officers have hard jobs. Any sane individual doesn't want an environment where people want to shoo them. Why can't we support law enforcement officers who do their jobs and be critical of those who don't or police departments with bad practices? My grandfather was a black police officer. He didn't find a conflict between law enforcement and civil rights. They go hand in hand."
Speaking of his grandfather... "He died three years ago. He would have loved this. I remembering being with him when he was 90 in the Bronx. This guy in his 40s said, 'Oh s***! That's Mr. Reggie!' He said my grandfather stayed on his a**, made sure he went to school and he respected my grandfather for that. He came around and paid homage to him in this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. He was still recognized. I think it's important that cops get to know their communities."
"Shots Fired," 8 p.m. Wednesday, Fox (debuting March 22)