Explaining racism in shootings to kids

Stephan James plays the lawyer and Sanaa Lathan is the federal investigator in Shots Fired. The new crime drama was created by husband- and-wife screenwriters Gina and Reggie Bythewood.
Stephan James plays the lawyer and Sanaa Lathan is the federal investigator in Shots Fired. The new crime drama was created by husband- and-wife screenwriters Gina and Reggie Bythewood.PHOTO: FOX

It is a quandary all parents face at some point: How do you explain ugliness and injustice to a young child?

For those with African-American children, such conversations are unavoidable when yet another unarmed black person is senselessly gunned down by police.

Husband-and-wife screenwriters Gina and Reggie Bythewood have had this difficult chat with their 16- and 13-year-old sons several times.

The need to explain the realities of racism to their boys also spurred them to create Shots Fired, a new crime drama, which debuts in Singapore on Friday.

It explores the fallout from two racially charged shootings in a small Southern town, with one white victim and the other, black.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Los Angeles earlier this year, the Bythewoods say they were inspired by the shootings of young black men such as Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Mike Brown in 2014, and the protests and debate these deaths have sparked.

Especially devastating for the film-makers and their boys was the killing of Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by a Florida man named George Zimmerman, who was then controversially acquitted.

Gina, 57, says: "The murder of Trayvon Martin was so stunning to us personally and emotionally, but more so to our older son, Cassius - he was 12 when we watched the verdict come down in the Zimmerman trial and it broke him. He could not understand how this could happen. I mean, I couldn't understand, but what it did to him..."

Husband Reggie responded by trying to educate his son about the long history of police brutality against blacks.

"When Zimmerman was found not guilty, my 12-year-old started crying. I like to think of myself as a loving dad, but my knee-jerk reaction was to pull open a laptop and show him a documentary about Emmett Till, a young man who was killed in 1955 when he was 14 years old, to really understand all this has a historical context," says the 51-year-old.

The Bythewoods had their sons in mind when asked to come up with a drama about how recent police shootings have fuelled racial tensions in the United States.

"The impetus for this show came from Ms Dana Walden, the head of Fox Television, right after the murder of Mike Brown. She said she wanted to do something in this area.

Reggie at the same time was developing a screenplay about the same subject matter, and we felt it was too big an opportunity to pass up," Gina says.

Praised by critics for its unflinching look at a thorny subject, Shots Fired stars Sanaa Lathan and Stephan James, who play the federal investigator and lawyer respectively sent in when an unarmed white man is shot by a black policeman during a traffic stop.

They learn that police are ignoring another incident involving the murder of a black teenager, but by having the first victim be white, the series - which also stars Helen Hunt, Richard Dreyfuss and Stephen Moyer - will "challenge perspectives and show another point of view", explains Reggie.

"We're dealing with the murder of two people - one person is African-American, one person is white - and we see the difference in the approach to each. But you've got to enter somebody's world before you lead them out, so that was just a necessary approach for us."

The couple say the show is their way of giving viewers the same brutally frank talk about racism they have had with their kids.

Reggie says: "When Cassius was about 10, he was in the car with me when I was driving on the freeway and a cop pulled me over and it quickly became very clear that he was being very aggressive. And I realised, 'Okay, now this is me illustrating to my son how you handle the situation.' And you have to be firm, articulate, in control and not seem scared.

"That was the first time we had what has been called, in the black community, The Talk - and you never know when The Talk is going to happen."

The hope is that this leads viewers of Shots Fired to greater understanding.

"It is a way for us to bring people into this world," Gina says. "Our hope is that you fall in love with characters, people you may not normally deal with every day and once you identify with them, it can hopefully start a dialogue."

•Shots Fired debuts in Singapore on Friday at 9pm on Fox (Singtel TV Channel 330, StarHub TV Channel 505).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2017, with the headline 'Explaining racism in shootings to kids'. Print Edition | Subscribe