There are a hundred elephants in the proverbial rooms that make up the United States of America, circa 2017. To say this country is under stress and expressing distress is an understatement of gigantic portions. To lift a line from the smash hit film “Ghost,” “Molly, you in danger, girl.” And by “Molly,” I mean you and I.
On a Google search “To Protect and to Serve” was submitted by officer Joseph S. Dorobek and it became the official motto of the Police Academy, and it was kept constantly before the officers in training as the aim and purpose of their profession.
It’s a necessary reminder because the history of abuses committed by police officers in this country is a scandalous mess. This problem is the jumping off point for Fox’s new series “Shots Fired,” starring Sanaa Lathan and created by husband-and-wife team Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood.
It’s a necessary and naturally provocative conversation starter, it’s set in the history-riddled South and it’s a mystery. The story is set in the small and economically divided North Carolina city of Gates Station. The hidden embers of hate begin to spark when their Black deputy sheriff, Mack Wilds (Joshua Beck), shoots an unarmed white college student.
Every level of police management is brought in to help prevent any perception of impropriety in the case and that includes the Department of Justice sending in Special Prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James) and cop-turned-investigator Ashe Akino (Lathan) to review the evidence.
At first the faces of Preston and Ashe have an automatic calming impact and, supported by North Carolina’s governor (Helen Hunt) and the local sheriff (Will Patton), their presence makes it appear that the case will close soon and smoothly. However, there is something “not quite right” and the moral compass begins to point toward deep departmental corruption. So deep is the rabbit hole that the allegations of an earlier and largely ignored police shooting of an unarmed African-American youngster threatens to tear the town apart.
The subject matter reviewed in “Shots Fired” take place in our modern world, where the mounting deaths of unarmed Black people are fresh. These sad facts are used by Prince-Bythewood and Bythewood and to that end, the pilot rings true.
Corruption in any government agency is hard to swallow, but when centered inside the Police force, it’s troubling and potentially deadly. In reviewing the case, both Preston and Ashe bring their pasts into the complicated mix. The question of what is justice becomes an important plot point, especially when they begin to review a private prison deal involving the governor and real estate titan Arlen Cox (Richard Dreyfuss). One can’t help but pause and think long and hard about the facts addressed in Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary “13th.” The facts are the facts, and to quote brother William Christopher Myers: “Once you know, you can’t un-know.” The prison system is entrenched racism and modern slavery and they only worsen when huge and consistent profits become the real objective, and rehabilitation and due process just part of the ruse.
“Shots Fired” is always smart, but sometimes the dialogue feels re-treaded.
The production notes give a hint that the sixth episode, which is directed by Jonathan Demme, will have an explosive tone. As the community continues to come apart, the temperature rises, naturally, as the murder investigation (that Preston and Ashe are conducting) keeps flipping over the dirt in the department’s history.
Prince-Bythewood (“Beyond the Lights”) took charge of the pilot, and the season will include a strong list of directors, including the aforementioned Demme, and directors Anthony Hemingway, Kasi Lemmons and Malcolm D. Lee.
On the acting, Lathan is a champion, a commanding presence. The supporting cast is solid a mix of solid actors such as Hunt and Dreyfuss.
DeWanda Wise and Jill Hennessy make their mark as grieving mothers. There are also great breakout performances, with a special nod to Aisha Hinds.
“Shots Fired” airs on Fox, Wednesdays at 8 p.m., PT.