“In our writers' room, which was like a mini-museum, there was a picture of Emmett Till,” Reggie Rock Bythewood says of the space where he and wife and fellow filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood sculpted their ambitious new project, Shots Fired, premiering tonight on Fox. “If you walk a little further, you might see a photo of something that happened in Ferguson. You might see a photo of a white police officer holding a Black Lives Matter sign. We set it up that way, so once you got off the elevator, you knew it wasn’t just about jokes and laughs.” That atmosphere helped set the mood for a meticulous look at society’s ugly underbelly.
The 10-hour miniseries, initially conceived as a film, examines the aftermath of a police shooting involving a black officer (Tristan “Mack” Wilds) and an unarmed white teenager in the fictional town of Gate Station, NC. The Department of Justice dispatches the May-December tag team of Preston Terry (Stephan James) and Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) to investigate, and beneath the polarized environment, they uncover a thread of dubious activity—including the mysterious, uninvestigated death of a black teenager. Inspired by the shootings that have claimed the lives of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and far too many others, Shots Fired inverts the scenario to make viewers consider everything in play from different angles.
“People default to one side immediately, whether you identify with the victim or the shooter,” Prince-Bythewood says. “We wanted to take away the knee-jerk reaction and give viewers the opportunity to identify with people they might not normally identify with.” Shots Fired probes the complexity of people and situations: there’s black and white, there’s right and wrong—but even when that seems clear, the intricacies in motion beneath the surface are ever-present.
Preston Terry is the best lens for Shots Fired’s perspective. He’s young, Ivy League educated, and confident. Terry’s first appearance comes as a college baseball player: he steps up to the plate, points to the fences, Babe Ruth-style, and hits a home run—all while wearing Jackie Robinson’s iconic number 42 jersey. It’s metaphoric for his approach to his second major investigation: he wants to knock it out of the park because he’s eager to prove himself.
“Preston has a huge chip on his shoulder,” says James, who played two legends—John Lewis in 2015’s Selma and Jesse Owens in last year’s Run—before his turn as Terry. “He feels like he always has something to prove, because he feels as though his purpose in life is greater than swinging a bat and hitting a ball out of a park. If you look at his relationships—with his brother, with his father, with his partner, Ashe Akino—that competitive nature comes from family bloodlines. His dad played sports and now his brother plays professional sports. I think that’s where a lot of it stems from, and it comes through in his profession.”
Terry, who's partially inspired by James's conversations with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, also believes his experience and race work against him. Although he’s leading the investigation, he and the more experienced Akino clash over approach. (Akino’s savvy brilliance is muddled by her personal problems.) Still, James says Terry is able to learn from his more seasoned colleague: “Being in a position of authority doesn’t mean you can’t take a page out of a more experienced person’s book.” Race plays a larger factor, because the idealistic Terry doesn’t want to be seen as the token black deployed by the government due to the shooting’s “optics,” nor does he want to be branded a sellout for investigating another black man. Throughout Shots Fired’s 10 hours, the cracks in the facade of his ideals deepen as he learns the world isn’t as black and white as he’d like it to be.
“There are injustices and flaws within the world,” James adds. “This gets broken down to Preston much like I feel it’s broken down to the audience.” And he isn’t the only character who receives an aggressive lesson in how systems test those who work to uphold them.
Deputy Joshua Beck’s (Wilds) life is uprooted by the shooting. As the lone black police officer in a predominantly black town where police mistrust is learned during life's primary years, his relationship with the public is already strained. Shots Fired shows the impact the incident has on Beck and his family, as well as how he’s portrayed by the media, received by his colleagues, and handled by his superiors. He’s ostracized by the people he swore to protect and serve; scrutinized by the very system he’s committed to. According to Prince-Bythewood, this look behind the shield was essential.
“It was important to show a black police officer being investigated and treated differently than his white counterparts,” she notes.
Shots Fired’s reversals aim to deviate from what the showrunners describe as “microwaved” storytelling. They’re the product of a thorough research process, christened “Shots Fired University,” which involved multiple conversations with experts.
“The DOJ investigator we met through our research was really the foundation for Ashe’s character,” Prince-Bythewood says. “She’s fascinating, because where many outside of law enforcement believe people are inherently good, she believes they’re born bad and need to be taught to be good. It’s based on her experience in law enforcement. Her example was that when you have a child, you have to teach them not to hit, not to bite, and to share. It’s something we had the opportunity to explore: who people are at their core, and if you’re a good person who does something bad, does that make you a bad person?”
A range of opinions were solicited with the intention of making Shots Fired relatable to a wider audience. For Bythewood, it was a fascinating exercise—especially when they disagreed with the arguments heard during the research portion of production.
“We also spoke with Eric Holder and Wanda Johnson, who’s the mother of Oscar Grant,” he says. “We also spoke with Ray Kelly, who was commissioner of the NYPD. We talked to a lot of law enforcement professionals, pastors, and activists. It was really great to hear so many different points of view, and I think that’s reflected in our storytelling.”
The investigation at Shots Fired’s center doubles as an exploration of race’s intersection with politics—from power dynamics between peers, to local and federal government. It threads a needle between abuse of power, unspoken codes, hidden agendas, and human nature. Shots Fired argues that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and that some embers can’t be snuffed out by authority. And in pursuit of the truth, we often learn things are more convoluted than black and white.
Plenty will call Shots Fired “timely,” but it’s rooted in history. It’s based on things the aware know to be true about society, while exposing the particulars the public isn’t always privy to. For example, we got a glimpse of who Darren Wilson was when he referred to Michael Brown as “it” during his 2014 grand jury testimony following the 18-year-old’s death at his hands. Now we learn, via Wilson, that he and other Ferguson, Mo. police officers referred to black people as worse.
As Shots Fired exhibits, this is what you learn when you place society in your crosshairs.