'Shots Fired' Creators Want To 'Challenge Your Perspective' On Police Shootings

Apr 8, 2017
Originally published on April 9, 2017 1:51 pm

It opens with a scene all too common in nightly news: A young man is dead in the street, shot by a police officer who thought he saw a weapon. It turns out there was no weapon.

But here's where the script breaks from the familiar: The officer is black and the victim is white.

That's the premise of Shots Fired, a provocative new TV drama on Fox, from co-creators Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood.

The husband-wife team talked to host Michel Martin about why they chose to flip the script on police shootings, in regard to the role race plays. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

Michel Martin: In the pilot episode, a special prosecutor from the Department of Justice, an African-American man who's played by Stephan James, gives a press conference as he's just starting his investigation of the shooting.

The men mentioned in that scene — Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott — those are all real cases of unarmed black men shot by police. Why did you decide to flip the usual script and at least start the series with a black cop shooting this white, young man? [Editor's note: Laquan McDonald was armed with a knife.]

Reggie Rock Bythewood: We were really, really inspired with the outcome of the Zimmerman trial. I watched that verdict come in with my boy who was the oldest son who was 12 at the time and instead of hugging and consoling him, I opened up a laptop and showed him this Emmett Till documentary on YouTube.

And we talked about the criminal justice system and how it's worked in this country, and how in many ways it has not worked, and that series of conversations really inspired us to want to do something in this space.

And when we started talking about how to open up the show we thought about you know so much that we saw around the Zimmerman trial were like these letters and donations coming in across the country for Zimmerman and it was almost like people could not connect or like see Trayvon as what he was, which was a kid. And so we thought by just having a white kid being killed helps you to examine it almost through a different set of eyes and challenge your perspectives in a different way.

Gina Prince-Bythewood: And that's really exactly what [the prosecutor] says in the clip that you played, that he's there to look at this case and see these two men and see their humanity. And that's really as artists what we wanted to do and why we decided to flip.

MM: Do you have some thoughts about what you're hoping that people will draw from this or how you are hoping people will approach this? I mean you mentioned earlier you and Gina have two sons right. And you're both African-American, so you have a particular kind of life experience that you're going to see things through that lens. What are you hoping for — because presumably you're hoping that lots of people with lots of life experiences will approach this.

RRB: One of the things that was very important for us is that — we created something that we called 'Shots Fired University,' which is basically this very intense research process that we do with our writing staff where we spoke with people like Eric Holder. We spoke with former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. We also spoke with Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant. Oscar Grant's the young man who was killed in northern California and they made Fruitvale Station about him. So we had these various points of view that were very important for us to tell this narrative.

And look, on and on another side of it, our oldest boy is 16 and will be driving soon. And on another side though, you know my grandfather who I was very close with, he was a police officer in New York. He's also the person who gave me 'the talk.' You know, he told me what to do, not if but when a racist cop pulls you over. And so one of the things I would hope is that we don't have to continue, generation to generation, to pass on this same talk per se, but ultimately we do believe that the only way to make things improve is for community and police to work together.

MM: Both of you talked about real things. I mean 2016 was a year that really brought this issue of police conduct to light for a lot of people. I mean obviously not for everybody because a lot of people have been thinking about this for quite some time. But then, it seemed as though it was one incident after another, just in one week in July. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police a few days later. Law enforcement officer in Dallas were ambushed.

I was wondering if that added an extra layer for you as artists, I mean, something that is very real, that is right very right now, and that a lot of people watching your work will have personal knowledge of.

GPB: Absolutely. It added an extra layer for Reg and I, for the writing staff and really for the cast as well. Those shootings happened at the same time that we were shooting and especially with the Philando Castile, that shooting, so many of us saw the Facebook Live and watched that and were so rocked by, and then coming to work the next day — it just stopped everyone. And our first day, a black woman named Shawn Pipkin, she was just wrecked and she called everyone together the entire crew and cast and did a prayer circle and just asked for grace and that was a really beautiful way to start the day because it grounded all of us and in remembrance of what we are doing the responsibility that we have to honor these people that are losing their lives unnecessarily.

MM: There are so many television programs and movies that are tackling issues around race, ethnicity, diversity, social justice from all these different vantage points. I mean, Hidden Figures is a huge hit, Get Out was a huge hit. And yet, at the same time, there's a whole group of people politically who have made it clear that those issues are not priorities for them. The current attorney general has said that he wants to review current police reform initiatives and consent decrees that have been opened or that are ongoing in cities like Chicago and Baltimore.

Are we two different countries with two different sets of priorities? I mean is there a creative class which is thinking about different things and is there say a political class which has different priorities? What do you think?

GPB: It is a tough period in our country right now. I think our show, what we're hoping, is to start bridging some of these fissures and we need to come at each other not as race, but where we're coming from.

RRB: And the reality is too, for us as artists, it's our job to be idealistic, and not foolish, but we really do unapologetically approach this like, 'Hey, let's make the world a better place.' And so what we've had to do is to create a narrative that doesn't feel preachy and stuff like that but clearly wanted to create a really great mystery, the town, just perspectives and can get people talking to each other, not at each other.

MM: I gave you the first word — we're going to give you the last word. Have there been any reactions so far that were particularly meaningful to you?

GPB: I think one of the most interesting reactions has been the way people have gone into the show. I remember one woman reached out and she said that it was so conflicting for her to watch it because her sympathies kept shifting to people that she normally wouldn't think she would sympathize with and that was a black woman and that was you know great for us because that is what we're doing and hoping to do again of creating empathy and putting people into every seat in the house.

Radio producer Liz Baker and web producer Emma Bowman contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to close things out today by hearing about a new program that opens with a scene all too familiar from the nightly news - a young man is dead in the street, shot by a police officer who thought he saw a weapon. It turns out there was no weapon. But that's not all. The script to which we've become accustomed is also flipped because the officer is black and the victim is white.

That's the premise of the provocative new TV drama "Shots Fired." It's a 10-episode series on FOX by the husband and wife team Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood, who also wrote the script for the first episode and directed it. They were both nice enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Reggie Rock Bythewood, Gina Prince-Bythewood, thank you so much for coming in.

REGGIE ROCK BYTHEWOOD: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Thank you.

MARTIN: Let me start with a clip from the pilot episode. This is the scene where a special prosecutor from the Department of Justice, who's played by Stephan James, gives a press conference as he's just starting his investigation of the shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHOTS FIRED")

STEPHAN JAMES: (As Preston Terry) As a prosecutor, it is my job to ignore all personal biases and to focus on the truth. Now, I must admit that can be hard. It can be tough. See, when I watch recent video of Laquan McDonald, of Tamir Rice, of Walter Scott shot in the back, murdered while running away from a child support payment, I am sickened - sickened by the lack of humanity displayed by those officers and angered at the arrogance of their lives.

MARTIN: Now, let me mention here that the prosecutor is also African-American. But the men mentioned here - Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott - these are all real cases of unarmed black men shot by the police. So why did you decide to flip the usual script, as we said, and at least start the series with a black cop shooting this white young man? Reggie, do you want to start?

BYTHEWOOD: Well, we were really, really inspired with the outcome of the Zimmerman trial. It's a case that I - you know, I watched that verdict come in with my boy, who was - the oldest son, who was 12 at the time. And instead of hugging and consoling him I opened up the laptop and showed him this Emmett Till documentary on YouTube. And we talked about the criminal justice system and how it's worked in this country, and how in many ways it has not worked.

And that - those series of conversations really inspired us to want to do something in this space. And when we started talking about how to open up the show, we thought about, you know, so much that we saw around the Zimmerman trial were, like, these letters and donations coming in across the country for Zimmerman. And it was almost like people could not connect or, like, see Trayvon as what he was, which is a kid. And so we thought by just having a white kid being killed helps you to examine it almost through a different set of eyes and challenge your perspectives in a different way.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: And that's really, you know, exactly what Preston says in the clip that you played, that he's there to look at this case and see these two men and see their humanity. And that's really, as a artist, what we wanted to do and why we decided to flip.

MARTIN: Reggie, do you have some thoughts about what you're hoping that people will draw from this or how you are hoping people will approach this? I mean, you mentioned earlier, you have - you and Gina have two sons, right?

BYTHEWOOD: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: And so - but that's a particular - and you are both African-American. You have a particular kind of life experience that you're going to see things through that lens. What are you hoping for? Because presumably you're hoping that lots of people with lots of life experiences will approach this.

BYTHEWOOD: One of the things that was very important for us is that we - well, we created something that we called Shots Fired University, which was basically this very intense research process that we did with our writing staff where we spoke with people like Eric Holder. We spoke with former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. We also spoke with Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant. Oscar Grant is the young man that was killed in northern California and they made "Fruitvale Station" about him. So we had, like, these various points of view that were very important for us to tell this narrative.

And, you know, look, on another side of it, yeah, you know, we have - our oldest boy is 16 and will be driving soon. And on another side, though, you know, my grandfather, who I was very close with, he was a police officer. He was a police officer in New York. He's also the person that gave me the talk. You know, he told me what to do not if but when a racist cop pulls you over.

And so one of the things I would hope is that I hope that, you know, we don't have to continue through generation to generation to pass on this same talk per se. But ultimately, we do believe that, you know, the only way to make things improve is for community and police to work together.

MARTIN: Both of you talked about real things. I mean, 2016 was a year that really brought this issue of police conduct to light for a lot of people. I mean, obviously not for everybody because a lot of people have been thinking about this for quite some time. But then there was this - it seems as though it was like one incident after another. Just in one week in July, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police, and a few days later law enforcement officers in Dallas were ambushed.

And I was wondering, you know, if that added an extra layer for you as artists. I mean, something that is very real, that is right - very right now, and that a lot of people watching your work will have personal knowledge of, will have been watching very closely themselves. I wonder, did that add an extra layer for either of you?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Absolutely. It added an extra layer for Reggie and I, for the writing staff and really for the cast as well. Those shootings happened at the same time that we were shooting. And especially with the Philando Castile - that shooting, you know, so many of us saw the Facebook live and watched that and were so rocked by it. And then coming to work the next day it just stopped everyone. And our first AD, a black woman named Shawn Pipkin, she was just wrecked.

And she called everyone together, the entire crew and cast, and did a prayer circle and just asked for grace. And that was a really beautiful way to start the day because it grounded all of us in remembrance of what we are doing, the responsibility that we have to honor these people that are losing their lives unnecessarily.

MARTIN: You know, I'm struck by something in entertainment, which is that there are so many television programs and movies that are tackling issues around race, ethnicity, diversity, social justice from all these different vantage points. I mean, you know, "Hidden Figures" is a huge hit. "Get Out" was a huge hit. And yet at the same time, there's a whole group of people politically who have made it clear that those issues are not priorities for them.

The current attorney general has said that he wants to review current police reform initiatives and consent decrees that had been opened or that are ongoing in cities like Chicago and Baltimore. And so I guess that's what I'm wondering, is in part - I mean, is this - are we two different countries with two different sets of priorities? I mean, is there, like, a creative class which is thinking about different things? And are there, say, a political class which has different priorities? What do you think?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: You know, it is a tough period in our country right now. I think our show, what we're hoping is to start bridging some of these fissures. And we need to come at each other not as race but where we're coming from.

BYTHEWOOD: And the reality is, too, like, for us as artists, it's our job to be idealistic and not foolish. And - but, you know, look, we really do unapologetically approach this like, hey, let's make the world a better place. And so what we've had to do is to create a narrative that doesn't feel preachy and stuff like that. But we clearly wanted to create a really great mystery that challenges perspectives and can get people talking to each other, not at each other.

MARTIN: I gave Reggie the first word, so, Gina, we're going to give you the last word. Reactions so far - have there been any reactions so far that were particularly meaningful to you?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I think one of the most interesting reactions has been the way people have gone into the show. I remember one woman reached out and she said that it was so conflicting for her to watch it because her sympathies kept shifting to people that she normally wouldn't think she would sympathize with. And that - this was a black woman - and that was, you know, great for us because that is what we're doing and hoping to do, again, of creating empathy and putting people into every seat in the house.

MARTIN: That's Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood. They are the creators of "Shots Fired." That's a 10-episode series on the Fox Network. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BYTHEWOOD: Thank you very much.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Thank you.

BYTHEWOOD: Appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBAY ORCHESTRA'S "STRANGE CONSTELLATIONS")

MARTIN: And we want to close tonight with another poem. This one's from Joanne Hall (ph) in Madison, Miss.

JOANNE HALL: Old man in the corner, tell me the story once more and I'll listen as though I've never heard a word of it before.

MARTIN: Speaking of hearing things once more.

HALL: Old man in the corner, tell me the story once more and I'll listen as though I've never heard a word of it before.

MARTIN: Thank you, Joanne. For Saturday, April 8, this has been ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're back tomorrow. Until then, thank you for listening, and we hope you have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.