Over the past two decades, Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood have made a name for themselves – individually – as filmmakers behind projects aimed heavily at African American audiences.
Reggie wrote 1996’s “Get on the Bus” for director Spike Lee and co-wrote 2009’s “Notorious” (a biopic about rapper Notorious B.I.G.); Gina wrote and directed 2000’s “Love & Basketball” (BET has called it one of the “Best Black Love Films” ever) and directed 2008’s “The Secret Life of Bees,” starring Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah.
But more recently the married couple joined forces, as creators and writers of their most high-profile project to date: A new 10-part limited primetime series called “Shots Fired,” which dramatizes the aftermath of a fatal police shooting in a North Carolina town that looks a lot like suburban Charlotte. It premieres Wednesday night on Fox.
If you watch it, here are nine things worth considering as you do so, based on an interview with the Bythewoods last month.
1. In some ways, the groundwork for the series was being laid before they even conceived of it. “One of the seminal moments for our family was the George Zimmerman trial,” Reggie Rock Bythewood said, referring to the Florida man acquitted in the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, under the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law. “I watched that with our older son, Cassius; he was around 12 years old at the time, and he was just blown away when Zimmerman was found not guilty. He was very upset by it. And his world view started to shift. I mean, Dr. (Martin Luther) King’s (“I Have a Dream” speech) had always been this very idealistic, hopeful, tangible thing for Cassius. ... But we didn’t console him and wipe his tears. Instead, I pulled open the laptop and he sat and watched a documentary about Emmett Till (the teenage boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for supposedly flirting with a white woman), and we as parents had a great conversation with our kid about where we are in the world and a lot of the work that needs to be done. Based on all of that, he wrote this short story of Trayvon Martin going to heaven to visit Emmett Till. As you’ll see in Hour 5, our character Shawn wrote a similar story – and it was really inspired by the story our kid wrote.”
2. They did some serious research while shaping the script. The Bythewoods conducted extensive interviews with a variety of sources, including: Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant – whose 2009 fatal shooting by a transit cop in San Francisco was dramatized in the 2013 film “Fruitvale Station”; Michelle Alexander, a civil rights advocate and author of 2010 book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”; former New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly, who was a supporter of the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk program; and Eric Holder, President Obama’s attorney general and the first African-American to hold that position.
3. Once it was time to choose a place to shoot, North Carolina fit their bill best. “We knew we wanted it to take place in the South,” Gina Prince-Bythewood said. “We’d talked about this as an autopsy of a town like Ferguson, and what happened there. We really wanted to look for a town that had that same feel.” She’s referring, of course, to the St. Louis suburb where an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown was shot and killed in 2014 by a white police officer, prompting protests that burned for weeks. (The production will get a decent tax break, too: North Carolina Film Office director Guy Gaster said it should be receiving a $9 million grant/rebate, having spent at least $36 million in the state.) “Shots Fired” was filmed in parts of Charlotte, Concord, Gastonia, Kannapolis, Mooresville, Monroe and Salisbury from late March to early August of last year.
4. But you’ll hear “Gate Station” mentioned a lot more than any N.C. city or town. That’s the fictional Charlotte suburb where much of the story’s action takes place, and it’s a nod to the Gate gas station in Jacksonville, Fla., where Jordan Davis – a 17-year-old African-American boy – was shot and killed in 2012 by a white man who thought Davis and his friends were playing their music too loudly.
5. HB2, by the way, had no impact either way on their decision to shoot in North Carolina, because by the time the N.C. House of Representatives approved the bathroom bill, it was too late to pull out. House Bill 2 passed on March 23, 2016, and “Shots Fired” began filming just six days later. Gina Prince-Bythewood said if HB2 had been in effect when they were initially choosing where to film, “that may have affected our decision...”
6. The heavy subject matter they were dealing with as actors and filmmakers was made heavier by current events. In particular, three straight days of violent headlines in July rocked the “Shots Fired” N.C. set. July 5: The shooting death of Alton Sterling, a black man, by two white police officers in Baton Rouge, La. July 6: The shooting death of Philando Castile, a black man, by a Hispanic officer in Minneapolis. July 7: The shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers in ambush attacks. “It was absolutely taxing,” Gina Prince-Bythewood said.
7. And then came the Keith Lamont Scott shooting in Charlotte. On Sept. 20, 2016 – a month and a half after production wrapped and the cast and crew returned to their homes in New York and Los Angeles – a 43-year-old African-American man named was shot and killed by an African-American Charlotte police officer near UNCC. The shooting touched off two nights of heated protests and violence that crippled Charlotte and dominated coverage on national cable news networks. “It was gut-wrenching,” Reggie Rock Bythewood said. “I was getting text messages from people that were either on the cast or affiliated with the show who were all just really blown away by what they were seeing. One of the hotels that we stayed at for a bit was sort of in the center of a lot of it as well. ... After all the time we spent there, we felt a strong connection to the Charlotte. ... And it just really brought home this notion that our work isn’t done.”
8. But they turned the headlines we’ve gotten used to seeing upside-down: They made the central shooting a case in which a black cop kills a white man. Gina Prince-Bythewood told the New York Times “there were a couple reasons” for the bold narrative choice. “During the Zimmerman trial,” she said, “many people were sending George Zimmerman money to help with his costs, as opposed to focusing on the young boy who was murdered. That lack of empathy and humanity was shocking. We felt inverting it was a good way to allow people to identify with the character and understand what we feel. And because we were dealing with two murders, it was a way to show how the community and the media often treat victims when the race is different. Why one may be painted as a college student and the other as a drug dealer or a thug.”
9. Real-world events influenced “Shots Fired,” and they hope “Shots Fired” can influence the real world – in a positive way. “I think that given the climate of the country, (the series) feels even more relevant now,” Gina Prince-Bythewood said. “There’s absolutely a sea change in people recognizing their power and the need to exercise their power.” Added Reggie Rock Bythewood: “Eric Holder once called the civil rights division the crown jewel of the Justice Department. And Eric Holder and (his successor under Obama) Loretta Lynch, they really looked at the police departments in Ferguson and Chicago and various cities that had practices they saw as bad practices. But what will this new Justice Department do under Jeff Sessions? Will they take some of these issues that many of us see as civil rights issues as seriously? I would definitely say the other thing that’s been interesting about this – and maybe more relevant than I think we might have imagined before – is the real need for a Department of Justice and a civil rights division to really do the work that they are called to do.”
The season premiere airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Fox (Channel 46).