Yes, a police shooting of an unarmed youth is at the center of the story, paired with a previous death by gunfire. But it’s an African-American sheriff’s deputy who has killed a white college student and roiled the North Carolina town where the story is set.
Series creator and executive producers Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Beyond the Lights,” ”The Secret Life of Bees”) and her husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood (“Notorious,” ”New York Undercover”), are flipping the expected narrative — that the victim is Black, the deputy White — as part of their effort to shift attitudes.
The other murder, the mostly ignored shooting of a black teenager, adds more layers to a mystery that’s intended to entertain as well as illuminate. Bythewood said he learned early that “you get audiences at the edge of their seats, and while they’re learning forward, hit them with the truth.”
In an interview, the couple cited the 2012 killing of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida by George Zimmerman as an impetus for their approach. Although many people sympathized with Martin’s family and their loss, others “had no regard for Trayvon as a human being, a child who was shot by a grown man,” Bythewood said.
Zimmerman, who argued the shooting was in self-defense, was acquitted by a jury.
“What we thought is the people that did not identify with people like Trayvon or other kids who were killed could easily be desensitized and say, ‘I already know what the story is, I already know what the case is,'” and ignore the series, Bythewood said.
A crucial goal, the pair said, is to get viewers to consider the sheer tragedy of a child’s loss for a parent.
“Forget race for a second, just connect with her as a mother,” Bythewood said. Or rather two moms, DeWanda Wise’s Shameeka Campbell and Jill Hennessy’s Alicia Carr.
“Mothers from very different walks of life are suddenly members of a club nobody wants to be a member of, and in the course of the 10 hours their relationship evolves and the optics of that are pretty striking,” Prince-Bythewood said.
The chance for long-form storytelling made the pair reconsider their original desire to pursue the topic as a big-screen film. But they were able to entice movie actors, including Helen Hunt, who plays the state’s governor, and Richard Dreyfuss, who portrays a real estate mogul.
Sanaa Lathan and Stephan James star, respectively, as an investigator and a special prosecutor, with Stephen Moyer, Will Patton, Mack Wilds and Aisha Hinds as part of the ensemble.
“They came together because they believed in the vision,” Prince-Bythewood said of the cast. Hunt and Moyer agreed.
“I want to work on things that are alive in me, and the country was on fire and is on fire and two people were writing about that and that was exciting to me,” the actress told a TV critics’ meeting.
Said Moyer: “It’s worth saying that one of the things that attracted us all to it, with regard to especially, specifically, playing police officers, is that all of these characters, every single one of them is gray.”
But what the series creators are asking of viewers is no small thing: step into another person’s shoes at a time of American political and social acrimony. Are they optimistic their show can make even a dent?
“We certainly have no optimism with the results that come from people staying in their corners and yelling at people across the room, and talking at each other as opposed to talking to each other,” Bythewood said. “There’s nothing good that comes from that. We hope (the drama) gives you a view from every seat in the house and gives you empathy and insight toward other people.”