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‘Seven Seconds’ puts a dramatic spin on tensions around law enforcement and race relations

Clare-Hope Ashitey, left, and Regina King, of the new Netflix drama "Seven Seconds."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

It takes roughly 55 seconds from the opening of “Seven Seconds” for the nightmare at the core of the new Netflix drama to begin.

A white cop, and anxious father-to-be, is rushing to the hospital when he accidentally strikes a black teenager riding a bike along a desolate park road in Jersey City, N.J. His white superior officer, fearing a horrible backlash — “A white cop and a black kid … there are no accidents anymore” — convinces him to leave the scene without reporting the incident, the battered youth bleeding and hidden from plain view in a snow-covered ditch.

The teen’s parents are racked by grief, searching for answers as their child clings to life. The driver is torn apart by guilt. His boss schemes a coverup. The black assistant prosecutor assigned to the case is stumbling badly due to battles with her own personal demons.

Veena Sud, the creator of the drama which begins streaming Friday, aims to tell a multilayered tale with hot-button resonance, both personal and political.

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“I wanted the story to center on the seven seconds that can change a life,” says Sud, who was the main force behind “The Killing,” the detective drama that debuted in 2011 which drew both high praise and angry backlash during a four-season run that began on AMC and ended on Netflix.

“Seven Seconds” is a departure from the more procedural elements of “The Killing” as Sud seeks to illuminate the human drama behind the long-standing mutual suspicion between African Americans and law enforcement, heightened in the last few years by several police shootings of unarmed African Americans.

“I remember after wrapping ‘The Killing in the spring of 2015, turning on the TV and seeing, on a nightly basis, black men and children being shot by the police,” Sud says in a phone interview. “I was horrified. I knew this had been happening for generations. But seeing the evidence of it happening over and over again made me saddened for the state of our country.

“I was really interested in the human stories behind the headlines — the notion of how a family and a marriage survive this,” she adds. “There are characters who believe foundationally in the goodness of a God — what happens when that is taken away? How does someone who believes he’s a moral man go against everything he’s strived all his life to be? How does a woman who’s so broken and has given up so deeply on who she is and her purpose on Earth find her bravery and strength to do what she knows she should do?”

The 10-episode anthology series stars Regina King (“American Crime”) as Latrice Butler, the mother of the struck teen, Clare-Hope Ashitey (“Shots Fired”) as assistant prosecutor KJ Harper, and Russell Hornsby as Latrice’s husband Isaiah (“Fences”).

Fans of “The Killing” may notice some parallels. In both shows, the victims are young people who may have a secret or two. Like the oil-and-water partnership of homicide detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) of “The Killing,” Harper clashes with her partner, investigator Joe “Fish” Rinaldi (Michael Mosley). Dark and dreary weather is a character in both shows — from the rain of “The Killing,” to the snow of “Seven Seconds.”

Sud, who is of Indian and Filipino heritage, also wanted to feature two women of color with different perspectives as central characters.

“KJ comes from a deep desire all my life to see women who look like me and are like me, struggling with the same issues I deal with, forced by life circumstances and the virtue of their work to take on the hero’s mantle,” she says.

King and Ashitey both see “Seven Seconds” as a spark for candid discussions.

“I’ve always liked subject matter that pulls at the heartstrings and tackles topics that a lot of TV shows are scared to show,” says King, the winner of two consecutive supporting actress Emmys in two different roles on “American Crime.” Sitting alongside Ashitey recently at Netflix’s Hollywood offices to discuss the show, King adds, “This is a rare opportunity to shine a light on what needs to be discussed.”

Ashitey nods and says: “This is not a new situation, but we’re at a very hopeful moment of sea change in history, where real and positive change can come about. Something has to give when police and people in the community see each other with such mutual suspicion and with the violence that happens.”

Writers and producers of the show came from diverse backgrounds, including a Chicago native who grew up hating the police but eventually became a member of the city’s police force.

Writers and cast members also met with mothers of children who had been killed by police.

“There’s no way to embody the pain and feeling that a mother feels when their child is murdered,” said King. “There’s no way to get past it, you just deal with it. We really wanted to honor the lives of the the children and what the parents go through, and what they will always go through.”

If “Seven Seconds” strikes some nerves, Sud is certainly accustomed to it.

Critics initially swooned over “The Killing,” her adaptation of a Danish crime drama, hailing its complex characters, dark atmospherics and intricate mystery. But the tables turned when the series didn’t wrap up the mystery at the end of the first season. Supporters who’d gotten caught up felt betrayed, and some fans issued vicious personal rants aimed at Sud.

“Creators make decisions all the time — that’s our job,” says Sud in recalling that period. “We make choices, and they’re not always popular. What I learned looking back is, if you’re a woman, and a woman of color creator, which is so rare in our industry, you will make a choice and then be asked to apologize, over and over, ad infinitum, in a way that male creators are never made to do. In every single interview I did, I was asked if I was ready to apologize.”

Sud, who is currently working on the feature film “Between the Earth and the Sky,” which she wrote and directs and reunites “The Killing” stars Enos and Peter Sarsgaard, remains “very proud” of “The Killing” and is equally excited about “Seven Seconds” and its potential impact.

“In this climate, especially now, there’s no room for being silent, or saying nothing,” she says. “That is not an alternative.”

‘Seven Seconds’

Where: Netflix

When: Anytime, starting Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

greg.braxton@latimes.com

Twitter:@GeBraxton


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