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Real life is the spoiler alert for Fox’s new ‘Shots Fired’

This fictional show might be the most timely TV series ever

Shots fired, for real.

Mack Wilds remembers the day he was supposed to act in a scene in which his character, a black police officer, kills a white college student. This scene was for Fox’s new series, Shots Fired. This particular day was the day after Philando Castile was killed by a police officer in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota (the officer is facing manslaughter charges).

Castile’s murder was captured by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who live-streamed the immediate aftermath on Facebook. Reynold’s 4-year-old daughter was a passenger in the car. The footage was horrific. “Walking into my trailer, the first thing I see is the … recording. I broke into tears. Like, inconsolable-nobody-could-tell-me-anything tears,” Wilds said. “I didn’t want to work that day.”

Series creators Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Bythewood came in and spoke to Wilds. “We’re doing this for a reason. It’s more than just trying to make great television. We’re trying to make something. You are one of the voices helping us do it.” It was bigger than entertainment.

“It took a lot out of me,” Wilds said nearly eight months later. “Because we’re living it just as much as we are dealing with it on set. Everything … we’re doing in the show came off very real because it came from a real place.”

Shots Fired, a scripted miniseries that unfolds over 10 weeks, reflects directly what is happening seemingly daily in American cities. At times, the episodes feel more like a documentary that chronicles the aftermath — in a small southern American city — of the murder of a black teen as well as a young white man. Law enforcement and media responses are starkly different based on race. Just like in real life.

“When you see these shootings happen, it seems like one of the first things the victim loses is their humanity. And when they lose that, they lose everything.”

The series compellingly revolves around 360-degree viewpoints — the victim’s families, the social activists, law enforcement, local politicians — as they navigate the fallout of the murders. It feels as if the Bythewoods thought this series up last week, filmed it Monday and finished the final edits moments before Wednesday’s premiere. But the truth is, Shots Fired has been years in the making, and was filmed in its entirety last year.

“We had an intent — absolutely — to raise consciousness and say something dealing with these shootings. For Reggie and I, and many others, [this] is the civil rights issue of our day. When you see these shootings happen, it seems like one of the first things the victim loses is their humanity. And when they lose that,” Prince-Bythewood said, “they lose everything.”

Shots Fired is a whodunit with the script flipped. A black cop (Mack Wilds) shoots and kills a white college student. Sanaa Lathan is Ashe Akino, an investigator for the Department of Justice. She comes to town with a federal prosecutor (portrayed by Stephan James, who starred as Jesse Owens in 2016’s Race). Together, they’re assigned to figure out what went wrong at the request of the governor of North Carolina (Academy Award winner Helen Hunt). Lathan, who has co-starred in series such as Starz’s Boss and FX’s Nip/Tuck, did not want to miss out on being part of this experience. “You don’t turn down working with these amazing filmmakers,” she said. “And the cast? I was blown away. Stephen Moyer. Richard Dreyfuss. Helen Hunt. Stephan James … We have every piece of the puzzle.”

“Your emotions were getting muddled to the point where people’s emotions were becoming numb. You couldn’t keep up with your own grief.”

Co-star Dreyfuss is also an Academy Award winner — and there’s a long line of feature film directors such as Anthony Hemingway, Kasi Lemmons, Malcolm D. Lee and Jonathan Demme, who are behind the camera. Many of the directors are black, and half of the directors for all of the episodes are women.

And the characters are extremely robust. Aisha Hinds (also currently co-starring on WGN’s Underground as Harriet Tubman) is woke pastor Janae James, an activist looking to grow her church and her profile. She refuses to let anyone silence her message.

“It was incredibly purposeful,” said Hinds, “because you felt like you were doing work that was important, necessary … and relevant. These things were happening so frequently that before you sat and really went through all the emotions of one experience and one encounter and one injustice, another one was behind it. Your emotions were getting muddled to the point where people’s emotions were becoming numb. You couldn’t keep up with your own grief. People needed to cry out, and this show presents an opportunity to cry out, and continue the conversation.”

Mack Wilds in the “Pilot” premiere episode of SHOTS FIRED.

Fred Norris/FOX

Wilds, currently co-starring in VH1’s The Breaks, said Shots Fired is social commentary. “It’s something for all of us … to … look at our homes, and see where we are in the world.”

Lathan and director Prince-Bythewood first worked together on 2000’s Love & Basketball, a coming-of-age film that centered on the desire Lathan’s character had to become the first woman to play in the NBA. It was Lathan’s first starring role in a film, and Prince-Bythewood’s first time writing and directing a feature. They have been fans of each other ever since.

“I’ve read a lot of these [kinds of] shows in pilot form. Been offered a lot. And, to me, the writing [for Shots Fired is] just next-level,” Lathan said, adding something else that is important to her: “I don’t want people to think we just threw this out, and we’re exploiting Black Lives. We’re not. They’ve been developing this for about four or five years.”

“There was a level of physicality we wanted the character to have, but that training was more about a mindset as well — having an athletic-warrior mentality.”

Shots Fired began development four years ago when Reggie Bythewood was waiting, with his then-12-year-old son Cassius, for a verdict in the trial of Florida’s George Zimmerman, who killed the unarmed 17-year old Trayvon Martin.

Young Cassius was convinced that Zimmerman would be found guilty. Bythewood was hopeful, but skeptical. On July 13, 2013, Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder. “Our boy was rocked emotionally, and it really challenged his worldview,” Bythewood said. “I think he might have thought that he was living in a postracial America. He grew up when there was an African-American president, and so he had a different worldview. He had tears in his eyes.” Bythewood opened up his laptop, pulled up YouTube, and had Cassius watch a documentary about Emmett Till. “We began to talk about how the system works. How the criminal justice system is supposed to work. And how, in many ways, it doesn’t work.”

Baseball, football and tennis all find their way into Shots Fired. Sports are used as a storytelling device, and it’s intentional.

Prince-Bythewood ran track for UCLA and has played basketball since she was a kid. Her husband grew up boxing. And so, one character in particular, Preston Terry (James), decided to forgo a career in baseball to become a federal prosecutor. His brother, Maceo Terry (Shamier Anderson), is a Cam Newton-like baller on the Carolina Panthers. In the second episode, Newton is even referenced by the man’s father — who clearly prefers his football-playing son’s choices more than those of his federal prosecutor son. The father is played by Dennis Haysbert.

“The mentality of an athlete, and the things that athletics teach you — wanting to be the best, leaving it all out on the floor, aggression is good, trying to be better than the next man — those are all things that are imbued in Preston,” Prince-Bythewood said. “He brought all of that he learned in baseball into being a prosecutor. It doesn’t matter his age, he’s going after it.”

“People needed to cry out and this show presents an opportunity to cry out and continue the conversation.”

At times, the Bythewoods use sports to make some not-so-quiet statements — a top-ranking police officer’s young daughter is the lone girl on an all-boys football team. “And with Sanaa, we had her go to a place called The House of Champions — a dojo — and she trained with Sensei Mark Parra and Diallo Frazier,” Bythewood said. “There was a level of physicality that we wanted the character to have, but that training was really more about a mindset, as well — having an athletic-warrior mentality.”

The initial plan is for only 10 episodes. An event series. But it feels like a movie. “It’s really a 10-hour film,” Bythewood said, adding that he and his wife instructed their writers not to use the word “episode” as they were working. They wanted the team to think “rounder, and bigger.”

And, now, the story is so rich, and of the moment, there could be another season. Because, Bythewood said, “For us, Shots Fired is a ‘why done it’ and a whodunit.” And, sadly, these happenings — and the questions we have behind them — don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

Liner Notes

Shots Fired premieres March 22 at 8 p.m. EST/ 7 p.m. CST on Fox.

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.