Wednesday, March 22, 2017

REVIEW: 'Shots Fired' - Ashe and Preston Team Up to Investigate a Police Shooting in 'Hour One: Pilot'

FOX's Shots Fired - Episode 1.01 "Hour One: Pilot"

When an African-American cop shoots and kills an unarmed white college student, a small town in North Carolin is turned upside-down. The neglected murder of an African-American teen is brought to light, opening wounds that threaten to tear the community apart. As Ashe Akino and Preston Terry set out to find the truth, they begin to grapple with the media attention, public debate and social unrest that come with such volatile cases.

Shots Fired seems like FOX's play to have a prestige show on its air. The network would probably want this to be a hit miniseries that connects with a wide audience while also getting lots of awards attention. It plays like that because of the subject matter at the heart of the narrative. This show is about police shootings and the potential corruption and racism that's a part of the profession. It's a very timely story as racially-motivated shootings and violence are more visible than ever before. Technology has forced it to the forefront. It's a serious issue that plagues this country. It shows that we aren't living in a post-racial society just because Barack Obama was elected president. In fact, these issues show that we still have so much further to go before equality and fair representation are actually real. This show is evidence of things heading in the right direction because it stars a woman of color in the lead role (Sanaa Lathan) and is being written and directed by a woman of color (Gina Prince-Bythewood). This opening hour truly digs deep into the complexities of the modern-day black identity. That's a compelling idea for a story. If the show doesn't get too distracted with other narrative tricks and quirks, then this could be a strong season of television.

It's fascinating to see the show not go the familiar route with a police shooting. A white cop shooting and killing a black man is the main visual of this kind of story. Instead, this show starts off with a black cop shooting a white man. Yes, it was in a black neighborhood and this officer is the only black man in the police force. But it's also a nice inversion of what is expected of this story. The visuals are very important. The creative team knows that and so do the characters. Lead prosecutor Preston Terry believes he can be unbiased and not see color in relation to this case. He was tasked to lead up the investigation solely because the Governor of North Carolina wanted a black man in charge. She understands the importance of that visual. To her, it makes it appear to the media that every effort is being made to have this be an impartial investigation. Whether or not that will ultimately be true is yet to be determined though. Preston comes from a more privileged life and is a bit naive about the way things work in the black neighborhoods of a small town in North Carolina. That naivety defines him so much in this opening episode. But it's also important to see him as this put-together lawyer who knows exactly what he's doing and wants to do everything by-the-book.

It's pretty common for television shows to be about odd couple pairings - whether it's in a comedy or a police procedural. That seems to be the case here too as Preston and his new investigator Ashe Akino don't seemingly get along at all. Ashe is such an interesting and unexpected character. She's a little chaotic. She has a unique view of the world as a former police officer. She too was involved in a police shooting and was ultimately cleared for it. She understands the process of this horrifying tragedy. But she is also on a quest to uncover corruption wherever she sees it - even when it doesn't ultimately connect to the case she is suppose to be working on. However, the audience's first glimpse of Ashe is as she's being a parent to her young daughter and throwing a vase at her baby daddy's new girlfriend. That's a wild moment with which to introduce her. It shows that she has problems. Ones that she really isn't addressing in any healthy ways. She wants to do her best to be there for her daughter. But it's pretty devastating when she gets the paperwork saying her baby daddy is suing for full custody. Her reaction to that is interesting and nuanced. It's not common to see a character like this. One who uses sex to feel good and have it mean nothing afterwards. She's a quick judge of character. But the depths the show can go with her are as complex as the corruption happening in this small town.

Of course, it's also weird that the show approaches this narrative as a murder mystery. It very purposefully doesn't show much from the police point-of-view. It's more important that the audience is unknown to this world just like Ashe and Preston are. They don't know what happened. They are here to investigate. Even though the premiere opens with the shooting, the audience still doesn't know if Officer Beck's story is completely truthful. Instead the camera focuses on a truck driver who happens to be passing by. He's the vantage point for this major event that kicks off the main story. It helps the audience stay unbiased and unswayed by any information that the investigators don't have. We are operating with just as much information as they are. That's important because it forms a connection with those characters right away. And yet, it's also fascinating to see Officer Beck struggle in the aftermath. This has the potential to ruin his career. Everything could work out if he sticks to the script of fearing for his life. That's what his fellow officers are telling him to do. But this one incident could be the thing that exposes the corruption happening in this town where 65% percent of the population is black but there's only one black police officer.

Over the course of the investigation, Ashe and Preston learn of another death that happened in this community. It's one that fits the more common narrative. A poor black kid was killed and the police are seemingly covering up the investigation. His mother, Shameeka, can't help Ashe and Preston with their current investigation. But what she has to say could greatly impact how they view the police in this community. No matter what, it indicates that there is more going on in this town than first appearances. Ashe and Preston are being intimidated not to dig too far into the other crimes that have happened here. That's the big mystery of the show. Those moments are a little weird. Police cars show up when they are first interviewing potential witnesses. Preston is beat up at night when he goes to the houses alone. And the premiere ends with a black kid being chased by two unknown individuals. So, there very clearly is something more happening in this town. It's just unclear if that method of telling this story is necessary. There is so much poignancy that comes out of Pastor Janae bringing both mothers of slain teenagers out to embrace the love of their community. That's a fantastic moment. In a series where the characters question how much each other believes what they are saying, moments like that feel genuine and powerful. If the mystery becomes too overwhelming, the show could easily loose its way.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Hour One: Pilot" was written by Gina Prince-Bythewood & Reggie Rock Bythewood and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.
  • Both of the teenagers killed had a bag of weed found on them afterwards. That can't be a coincidence. In fact, it plays like something that shows the police as corrupt and doing whatever it takes to justify their horrifying actions to protect their own.
  • Preston also calls into question whether or not Officer Beck had cause to pull over the victim in the first place. He believed a white kid being in this particular neighborhood meant drugs. And yet, that bias seems like the only thing motivating his actions.
  • A video surfaces of Officer Beck bragging about finally getting to "shoot some crackers" after he becomes a police officer. It's easily something that's going to blow up into a big thing by the media. And yet, his fellow men in blue seem to be sticking by him - even as he's placed on administrative duty.
  • That speech that Preston delivers during the first press conference is very impressive and inspiring. He steals attention away from the Governor. But it's also enough to settle the crowd as he prepares to dig deeper into the shooting.
  • Of course, both Preston and Ashe are distracted by romantic pursuits as well. They actually both have sex in this opening hour. Preston is with the Governor's assistant while Ashe is with Preston's brother.
  • Stephen Moyer plays another police officer in town. He's the first on scene to help Officer Beck after the shooting. And yet, he's a very minor character throughout the rest of the premiere. Ashe knows of him and needs to interview him. I'm just curious to see how he'll factor into all of this.