What first looks like a reverse Ferguson situation quickly gets even more complicated
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Credit: FOX
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With Shots Fired, creators Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood have taken on an admirably audacious task: delivering an entertaining network drama about the fraught and complex issue of police violence. The pilot was mostly spent introducing the characters, setting, and central conflicts.

The show hits the ground running with a thought-provoking situation that reverses the racial dynamics of the famous Ferguson shooting that brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront of national consciousness. Instead of an unarmed black kid like Michael Brown getting shot by a white cop like Darren Wilson, the inciting incident for Shots Fired is an unarmed white kid being shot by a black cop named Joshua Beck (Mack Wilds). The shooting itself takes place in a majority-black neighborhood of North Carolina, so it’s a crowd of black people who gather around Beck and the kid’s body, at least until more cops show up and start fingering their weapons.

From there, we move to an office of the Department of Justice, which has been summoned by North Carolina’s governor to investigate the shooting and make sure local biases don’t come into play. For “optics,” the department wants to send a young black prosecutor, Preston Terry (Stephan James), to be the face of the case. Preston has a vision of the world where “truth has no color” and attorney generals are tasked with defending the American promise, but his superiors seem more interested in the unshakable confidence he once displayed as a baseball talent.

Preston’s primary partner on the investigation is Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan), who has toughness and experience in spades but also some major personal problems. Ashe has a daughter she loves, but the girl lives with her father, Javier, and his current partner, Paula. Ashe and Paula don’t get along, to the point that Ashe throws a vase at Paula’s head just for raising her voice around the child. Javier, for his part, is getting fed up with the conflict.

Ashe decides to follow the time-honored method of forgetting your personal problems by diving headfirst into work. She and Preston arrive in North Carolina and immediately interrogate Beck at the police station. Though unwilling to talk at first, Beck opens up after Ashe shares her own story of shooting an unarmed man on her second day as a cop on the streets. Beck admits that he was on patrol when he saw a white guy in a nice car, and suspected he might be a drug dealer. Beck says that the kid belligerently refused to answer questions. When he opened the car door, the kid grabbed for the gun and Beck shot him in self-defense. It’s pretty similar to the stories told by Wilson and other cops who have been caught in this situation, almost as if it’s a standard template every police officer is instructed to follow. As we find out later in the episode, that’s literally true in Beck’s case.

The current conversation cuts off when Preston asks why Beck needed to shoot the kid four times to protect himself, and whether there was an inciting incident for pulling the kid over or if Beck was just profiling. Beck shuts up after that, which enrages Ashe. She clearly doesn’t think much of Preston at this point and tells him to leave the questions to her.

Preston and Ashe’s next stop is the scene of the shooting (one of the white officers at the police station is insistent they not refer to it as a “crime scene” until a crime has been proven). One of the first people they meet there is a boy on a bike wearing a Panthers jersey. Preston reveals that the kid is actually wearing the jersey of Preston’s NFL star brother. That works as an icebreaker, though the kid flees once an intimidating-looking car drives by.

Next up is the mother of Jesse, the boy who was killed. Preston and Ashe find her ironing a dress shirt for the funeral, but that only makes her cry because she knows Jesse would never have worn such a thing willingly in his life. He preferred comic book t-shirts. So she’s sad, but also angry, and clear about how she sees the situation: She didn’t “lose” her son. He was murdered.

While this is going on, local pastor Janae James (Aisha Hinds) pays a visit to the Beck household, where she offers Joshua the opportunity to come make a statement at her services, in a supportive environment. He declines for now, so Janae heads to Gov. Patricia Eamons’ (Helen Hunt) press conference.

After some opening remarks, Eamons gives the mic to Preston, and Janae immediately asks him why he’s here investigating this case instead of the multitude of police shootings with black victims. Preston proceeds to give an impassioned speech, the focus of which is his plan to prosecute this case so well and so thoroughly that it will serve as an example to other prosecutions, even those with different racial dynamics. This earns him some respect from Ashe, who acknowledges he must not be a sellout after all. They flirt a bit, but Preston says he wants to focus on the job at hand. That means going back to the scene, where he ends up taking a few punches but nevertheless comes away with a lead.

Preston takes Ashe to see Mrs. Campbell (DeWanda Wise), another local mother who recently lost her son in a shooting. But Campbell and her son are black, so the case is not receiving nearly as much attention. In fact, it’s not being investigated at all. Campbell has even heard rumors that the police themselves may have been responsible for her son’s death.

This revelation is really where the pilot kicks up a notch. The “reverse Ferguson” premise could’ve been gimmick-y, but Prince-Bythewood and Co. immediately complicated it. Preston stays cool for now, noting that the accusations of police involvement are still unfounded. When Ashe bristles at this, Preston maintains that his plan is still to prosecute the Jesse case spotlessly, and then use that as leverage in other investigations.

From there, the show swings back into more soap-y network drama territory, a.k.a. sexy shenanigans. Preston takes Ashe to dinner with his superstar brother, but their flirting annoys him and he dredges up old sibling rivalries before leaving in a huff. Ashe stays behind and has sex with her partner’s brother, which I’m sure will lead to a healthy workplace dynamic, but Preston also gets lucky with the governor’s assistant, Sarah Ellis (Conor Leslie). The show’s tonal whiplash is real for the characters, too – when they wake up the next morning, they’re greeted by unearthed video of a younger Joshua Beck telling the camera about how he can’t wait to use his police badge and gun to shoot “crackers.” That will certainly make all their jobs that much harder.

Janae decides to do some catharsis, and she brings the two moms together at her church. Lots of things remain unresolved, though – particularly that cliffhanger ending featuring the kid on the bike getting chased once again by intimidating cars. Something tells me we have a lot more to learn about these cases.

Shots Fired is fascinating and thought-provoking so far. It presents recent news events in an unfamiliar way but never loses sight of the real victims of police violence. Its indulgence of quasi-soap opera dynamics hasn’t undermined the seriousness yet. It will be very interesting to see where the rest of the series goes.

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