The creators of 'Shots Fired' share how real-life events inspired the racially charged series, and how they hope to change the landscape — on and off screen

By Chancellor Agard
March 21, 2017 at 12:36 PM EDT
Fred Norris/FOX
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Though it has been years in the making, Shots Fired has an eerie timeliness. Created by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) and Reggie Rock Bythewood (Notorious), Fox’s obsessively researched, Ferguson-inspired 10-episode series aims to both entertain and provoke with its exploration of race-relations and America’s criminal justice system.

“We get the audience to the edge of their seats, and while they’re leaning forward, we hit them with the truth,” says Bythewood.

The story begins rather provocatively with the shooting death of an unarmed white college student by African-American sheriff’s deputy Joshua Beck (The Wire‘s Mack Wilds). But then when an ambitious Department of Justice special prosecutor (played by Stephan James) and investigator (Love & Basketball‘s Sanaa Lathan) travel to North Carolina to investigate the shooting at the request of Gov. Patricia Eamons (Helen Hunt), they stumble upon an uninvestigated murder of a black teen. The two shootings, which have been treated differently due to race, force long-festering racial tension in this small town to surface.

“Flipping the narrative with one of these cases allows people who don’t normally deal with this in their communities to truly understand what we go through,” says Prince-Blythewood of the show’s opening scene. “They’ll empathize with characters they may not even know in real life.”

The origin story of Shots Fired is serendipitous. In the wake of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American man, by a white police officer, Fox Television Group CEO Dana Walden and EP Brian Grazer approached Prince-Bythewood with the desire to address the issues raised by the incident. Coincidentally, the writer-director’s husband was conducting research for a film on racism and distrust between law enforcement and the black community, inspired by conversations he’d been having with his oldest son going back almost five years. At the time, neither was interested in returning to television — they met as writers on NBC’s A Different World in the ’90s — but it wasn’t long before they were convinced. “The reach of network television was exciting to us,” she says. “We felt this urgency,” adds Bythewood.

Fred Norris/FOX

Likewise, some of the cast members weren’t looking for a network TV gig, but changed their tune when they heard about this opportunity. Lathan typically avoided series because of the long contracts; Wilds had been focused on music and wasn’t sure he wanted to continue acting at all. However, this role gave him an opportunity to use his “art as a weapon,” he says. “There’s only so much you can do with a hashtag or a retweet. As artists, we don’t get enough opportunities to do something of this magnitude that speaks to our social climate and who we are as human beings and, better yet, as Americans.”

Before heading into production in North Carolina, the writers devoted hours of research in order to get this series right and surrounded themselves with the material; there was a picture of Emmett Till hanging outside of their offices. “In many ways, Emmett Till felt like a ghost of this project,” says Bythewood. “Getting off the elevator every day and seeing these various images just kept us grounded, kept us focused on what was in front of us.”

The cast also dove into the research. “The actors were like sponges. They wanted to portray their characters in the most authentic light,” says Bythewood, noting that research included interviews with former attorney general Eric Holder, mothers of police shooting victims, and real cops and investigators.

“When you’re working on a piece as an actor, you’ll have to do a lot of research and do a lot even just imagination work to put yourself in that world. Yet, that work was done for us. We were living in that world,” says Lathan. “We came to this with a sense of, ‘This is important work’ and a sense of respect for the subject matter and reverence for and knowledge of the responsibility of this matter.”

As production took place between March and July last year, world events reminded everyone of the importance of this undertaking. The shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota on July 6 hit the cast particularly hard, as it happened the night before they filmed a devastating scene. “I completely broke down,” says Wilds of coming to set the day after Castile’s death. “Gina and Reggie had to tell me to get my head back in the game and that we’re doing this for a reason. This is the reason.”

Shots Fired premieres March 22 at 8 p.m. on Fox.

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