In a small North Carolina town, a white mother grieves. Her teenage son, a college student, has been shot and killed in a confrontation with a black sheriff’s deputy. Her tears fall on the suit she is ironing for him to wear in his coffin.
Across town, an African American mother grieves. She has buried her son who was killed during an incident that her friends have told her may have involved deputies in the predominantly white sheriff’s department. But the circumstances of the case remain murky, and she has been quietly warned by officials not to speak out.
Both youths were unarmed when they were killed. But only one of the deaths — that of the white teen — has attracted the attention of the state government and the Department of Justice, which has dispatched an out-of-town prosecutor to the mostly black town to investigate before already simmering racial tensions explode.
The two fictional incidents are the focus of “Shots Fired,” Fox’s limited series premiering Wednesday that is dramatizing one of the nation’s most volatile issues: the rash of shootings of unarmed black men by white law enforcement officers.
“We just really wanted to put a human face on this,” said writer-director Reggie Rock Bythewood, who created the series with his wife, writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood. “We wanted to bring a level of humanity that we haven’t seen in stories because this is so politicized. Everybody goes to their corners and come out swinging.”
The 10-episode series stars Sanaa Lathan (“The Best Man”) as investigator Ashe Akino, who teams up with Special Prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James) for the inquiry. Both are African American, which doesn’t sit well with department honchos, including Lt. Calvert Breeland (Stephen Moyer from “True Blood”). Mack Wilds (“The Wire”) plays the deputy, Joshua Beck, who shot the white teen.
The cast also includes two Oscar winners — Helen Hunt (“As Good As It Gets”) as Gov. Patricia Eamons, who is in a tough reelection battle, and Richard Dreyfuss (“Jaws”) as real estate mogul Arlen Cox, who owns a privatized prison.
The project has been a personal mission of the Bythewoods, who separately and together have developed several successful films and TV series. Gina directed 2008’s critically acclaimed drama “The Secret Life of Bees” and also wrote and directed the seminal sports film “Love & Basketball,” which starred Lathan. Reggie’s credits include co-writing the 2009 Notorious B.I.G. biopic “Notorious” and producing the mid-1990s Fox police drama “New York Undercover.”
“Gina and I had been talking for some time about doing something in this space about the lack of trust between the community and law enforcement,” said Reggie. “We had been looking at doing a film about it.”
While the couple were doing their research, Gina was approached by both Imagine Entertainment and Fox Television Group Chairman and CEO Dana Walden, who was absorbed by the furor around the 2014 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., by police officer Darren Wilson.
“Dana saw the explosion that happened and wanted to do something in that arena,” Gina said. “She asked if we would be interested, and we realized that this would be an opportunity to do the show we want, tell the story we want, while also having the platform and the reach of television. We couldn’t pass it up.”
One of their key moves was to feature a plot line in which a black officer shoots an unarmed white youth.
“I think it would have been very easy for people to become desensitized if we had made it a black kid being shot by a white cop,” said Reggie.
Even though the topic of the tensions between law enforcement and minority communities is the main backdrop of “Shots Fired,” one of the main inspirations for the show was not directly related to police shootings.
Reggie recalled the moment in 2013 when he and his son, Cassius, who was 12 at the time, were watching live coverage of the verdict for George Zimmerman, the man charged with second-degree murder in the controversial shooting death of 17-year-old high school student Trayvon Martin.
“When the ‘not guilty’ verdict came in, we were both taken aback,” he said. “My son got very emotional, I told him to dry his eyes, then showed him a documentary about Emmett Till.” (Till was the 14-year-old black boy brutally slain in Mississippi in 1955 after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. His killers were acquitted).
He added, “I told him how the justice system works. It was the first time I talked to my 12-year-old as a man.”
Having the luxury of exploring the issue in a limited series rather than a two-hour film also afforded the Bythewoods the opportunity to look at the provocative issue from several perspectives — one of the storytelling factors that impressed Lathan.
“The audience is going to get the chance to sit at so many seats at the table,” said the actress. “They will get to experience the feelings of the cop behind the shooting, his family life and what he’s going through. They’ll be able to see the feelings of the mothers, the prosecutor from the justice department. It gives a 360-degree view.”
The Bythewoods hope that “Shots Fired” offers much-needed insight for viewers.
“It feels good because we’re not sitting on the sidelines; we feel a true responsibility,” said Reggie. “It’s like doing an autopsy.”