I don’t think I’ve ever watched a screening that pulled at my heartstrings as much as the first episode of "Shots Fired" did. Not only did it bring me to tears, it left me inspired, inspired to share to others how important and relevant this show could be to the times we live in today.
Featuring an all-star cast including Sanaa Lathan, Jill Hennessy, Will Patton, Mack Wilds, Aisha Hinds, Richard Dreyfuss, Stephan James and more, the series takes a closer, in-depth look at the criminal justice system via the prism of two racially-charged shootings in a small town. Producers Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood call it a 10-hour film, one that's not afraid to ask questions we all want answers to, one that's destined to spark real conversation and change.
Right after the New York screening of episode one, the cast reunited on stage for a 45-minute Q&A.
HOST: We saw a little bit before the screening about you explaining why you made this: people at FOX wanted something like this after Ferguson. They were inspired around that time to kind of address what was happening. So, tell me how you came up with this concept after the turmoil the nation as gone through?
REGGIE: Well, little did FOX know [that] we were already working on a screenplay, so when FOX came to us it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass on and, let me just say this, the first person to really write something as narrative [was] our oldest [son] because, after the Zimmerman verdict came in, he wrote a short story about Trayvon Martin going to heaven to meet Emmett Till. We really see this as a 10-hour film so we would always say hour 1, hour 2, but it was really pretty instinctual initially, that we wanted to do this case the way it was where it was an unarmed white man and an unarmed young black kid and we just saw that as a great platform to dissect, to kind of create this autopsy of a town like Ferguson and dig into all the subject matter we wanted to dig into.
GINA: Yeah, I mean, one of the things that shocked Reg and I with the Zimmerman trial was how many people were sending Zimmerman checks, donations to support him, and not talking about this kid that was killed, the lack of humanity that people were showing this kid. I mean, we couldn’t understand it; we looked at him and felt like he was ours. You know, President Obama said if he had a son, it would look like Trayvon so the lack of humanity, the lack of empathy that was being shown for this boy really struck us and we felt [that], in flipping the narrative initially, [it] was a way for people who don’t normally deal with something like this to be able to see someone and empathize with the character and understand what we go through and once we empathize, we can change. It also allowed us to get into the way that victims of violence are treated based on race and the fact that when these kids, both men and women, are being killed, the first thing the media seems to do is make them a victim and try to make it their faults, so we wanted to deal with that as well.
HOST: Now, while you were shooting this, there was the Philando Castile shooting, other things going on, were you tempted to react to what was going on in the headlines? Did any of the story lines change at all given the continual shootings of unarmed black men?
REGGIE: Unfortunately, it didn’t really need to change. We are a show that was heavily researched, so we spent a lot of time speaking to law enforcement, speaking to the victims and, most significantly, we talked to the mother of Oscar Grant. Oscar Grant was a young man killed in Northern California, they made Fruitvale Station about him, and it was people like her that created such a template for us and we were really able to get the beginning, middle, and end through a lot of our research. The Philando Castile case, however, really affected our cast in a deep way; Mack was affected, something we really had to deal with on set.
SANAA: We were just bombarded by the record number of murders going on while we were shooting. We had a black Assistant Director on set and when Philando got murdered, we came in that day and she was wrecked. We couldn’t start the day. We had a prayer circle, we took a moment of silence, and it really kind of dropped in for us how important the work is that we were doing and we asked for grace in this work because of all these souls that were gone. In a weird way as an actor, you have to do a lot of imagination work to get into the character and in a weird way, the work was done for us because it was right there, so it was chilling at times.
HOST: Jill, I wanted to ask, you have the very emotional role as the mother of one of the victims. What did you tap into for that? I’m not sure if you talked to anyone who was in a similar situation.
JILL: This was one of the best scripts I did because it deals with an issue we need to talk about. It doesn’t fall into the trap of cliché or stereotype. The audience is actually invited to empathize with all these people. I read the words of Trayvon Martin’s parents, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis. I have these words, their words in my head everyday. Tamir Rice's mom said something that I reminded myself every day, which was to really put yourself in the mind of these families, everyone was living this, we're seeing this every day. These people are living this when they're making breakfast, making pancakes for their kids every morning and they're realizing, gosh, I used to do this all the time for him and he’s not here. Tamir Rice's mom said something like, 'Everyday, I keep expecting him to come through the door to tell me what happened.' And that’s just a never-ending process. We realized that the dialogue we were saying we [had] just seen on the news that morning from some other parent who lost their child.
RICHARD: You see a black man on the street and you don’t know that you start with guilt and you go into fear then you go into anger and then you go into action and none of those things are conscious but that’s true and every white person can know it; they don’t know it, but they should and every black person should know it.
HOST: You talked about wanting to create a national conversation. What is the hope that, with these 10 hours of this film, we’ll come away with after watching this?
SANAA: I hope that people cry, I hope that people have discussions, I hope that people debate and I hope that people ultimately have some empathy that’s created in terms of stepping outside your comfort zone of what you're used to thinking and I hope that, hopefully, because of that, some compassion is created and that’s what we need in this country right now.