Sundance 2017 has come to an end, but with a bang, not a whimper. At the Saturday night awards, films that took on politics and feminism came out on top. And before that, a gathering of women to discuss the path forward turned into a heated discussion about intersectional feminism and race.
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Many people watched the George Zimmerman trial in 2013 and felt outrage. Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood experienced that too — and saw an opportunity.
The couple and creative collaborators — known for their work independently as well as on shared efforts like the romantic drama "Beyond The Lights" — decided to take out their laptops and do something about it.
"We watched the Zimmerman verdict [in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin] with our son, and when he was found not guilty our form of consoling our son was showing him an Emmett Till documentary," said Rock Bythewood. "Then we said: 'As artists it's also our responsibility to hold up a mirror to our society.'"
The result of that impulse is the new series "Shots Fired," a 10-episode Fox event about racially charged shootings by police officers, which the couple premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. (It will debut on the network in March.)
Starring Sanaa Lathan and Stephan James, the North Carolina-set series differs in some key ways from the spate of features about the subject, documentary and narrative, that have popped up at this festival and elsewhere..
For one thing, the longer format allows for more characters (and character development).
For another, "Shots Fired" looks at shootings in new ways: There are two killings, of both a young white and black person. Indeed, the series kicks off with the killing of a white man by an inexperienced black police officer.
"It was very important we had both," said Prince-Bythewood. "Right away we want to start asking an audience to look at things in different ways."
She added, referencing the decision to include a white person being shot. "If you're not connecting with the victim, it's easy to turn the channel off."
She and Rock Bythewood conducted an extensive amount of research for the series, talking to people across the spectrum — from the mother of Oakland transit-police shooting victim Oscar Grant to former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. The idea, they said, was to make sure every character was backed by human motives, even if the audience wouldn't automatically sympathize with them.
If network television and this festival can seem incompatible, that's rapidly changing, with a number of TV series premiering in Park City this year. Besides, Sundance movies played a role in the creation of this show: The couple watched "3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets," the powerful movie about the Jordan Davis shooting that premiered here two years ago, as they were working on episodes of "Shots Fired."
"That movie was big for us," said Prince-Bythewood. "What happened was totally devastating."
Broadcast television, meanwhile, has become more interested in tackling race-related subjects in serious ways; "Black-ish" and "American Crime" have both undertaken these efforts, the former with its much-praised episode "Hope," about police brutality, a year ago.
As the investigations unfold and the racial politics becomes more complex, "Shots Fired" takes on a strong layer of social consciousness. But the creators want to be careful to balance substance and suspense — or at least to somewhat disguise the former.
"Our creed was to get the audience on the edge of their seats and when they're leaning forward hit them with the truth," said Rock Bythewood. "Hopefully meaningful change will land without the audience seeing it coming."