NYT Review: Fox’s “Shots Fired” Depicts Complications of Black, White, and Blue

The debate over police violence in America is often framed as Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter. “Shots Fired,” a new 10-episode series on Wednesdays on Fox, starts with a shooter whose life is both black and blue.

A small-town North Carolina sheriff’s deputy, Joshua Beck (Mack Wilds), has shot an unarmed college student during a traffic stop. It’s a too-familiar situation, but this time the officer is black and the dead youth white. The Department of Justice sends two investigators, Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan, “Love & Basketball”) and Preston Terry (Stephan James). Both are African-American. “Optics,” a supervisor explains.

The optics of “Shots Fired” are curious at first glance, given how many such cases have involved white officers shooting black citizens. The premise might seem like a stunt, or a way to latch on to a hot news topic while neutralizing the racially polarizing elements.

But “Shots Fired,” while sometimes obvious in its execution, is more complex than that, unfolding a story that’s ambitious and — unusually for a broadcast-TV drama — very race-conscious.

The shooting initially seems like a ripped-from-the-headlines case, race-flipped. Beck racially profiled the man he ended up shooting, having pulled him over on the suspicion that a white man in a black neighborhood was there to buy drugs. But the investigators soon find there’s more to the story. Another unarmed young man was recently shot to death by law enforcement. He was black, and his killing was kept quiet.

The sheriff’s department — all white except for Beck, though the town is mostly black — pushes back hard against the investigation, especially Lt. Calvert Breeland (Stephen Moyer, “True Blood”), a staunch believer in profiling. An activist, Pastor Janae James (Aisha Hinds), scorns the Department of Justice for paying attention only after a white student dies.

Ashe, a skeptical former cop who struggles with alcohol and anger issues, makes for a difficult pairing with Preston, a careerist prosecutor. But as the investigation deepens, and their superiors seem less enthused about digging into the black youth’s death — no one wants “another Ferguson” — Preston’s faith in a colorblind system is shaken.

Beck also discovers that, as the scandal evolves, his blackness supersedes his blueness when it comes to how he’s treated. The police union, for instance, cuts his legal representation after a video emerges. “My uniform doesn’t protect me the same way it does them white boys,” he says.

Episode by episode, “Shots Fired” adds layers. In an election year — a bit jarringly, it’s still 2016 in the show’s world — the governor, Patricia Eamons (Helen Hunt), is in a tight spot: She’s a liberal seeking to shore up her base and her law-and-order cred while sealing a prison-building deal with the real estate developer Arlen Cox (Richard Dreyfuss, in Southern-fried mode).

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