There is much to like about Netflix’s 10 episodes of Seven Seconds. The acting is first rate from Regina King, portraying Latrice Butler the mother of a black teenager (Brenton Butler), killed by a cop car, down to Gretchen Mol, appearing in only a few episodes as a defense attorney. Although the cast is much too large to mention all the fine acting, Clare-Hope Ashitey and Michael Mosley—playing prosecutor KJ Harper and detective Joe 'Fish' Rinaldi, who try to charge and convict four white policeman for covering up the accident—are both excellent, as are the actors portraying the four cops. I also enjoyed the performance of Russell Hornsby, whose acting was good in Denzel Washington’s Fences. Here he plays Isaiah Butler, the father of Brenton.
There are also enough plot twists and ups and downs to maintain viewer interest up until the very end of the series. Brenton, for example, does not die immediately from the accident, but is taken to a hospital before dying there. Throughout the episodes (the script to Episode 1 and links to subsequent ones are here), most of us viewers hope that the cover-up finally will be exposed and justice will be dealt to the four offending policemen. Whether that occurs I’ll not reveal here. If the director (Veena Sud, who earlier directed “The Killing” series) wished to portray reality, however, would she have the four cops receive long prison sentences? Does justice usually win out in confrontations when white policeman are responsible for the deaths of young black men? Also, we should recall that the ending we were left with at the end of episode 10 may not be the final one. A Season 2 remains a real possibility.
The film’s subject matter is certainly timely and important. At one point outside the court two protesting groups yell out. One shouts, “Black lives matter”; the other, “Blue [police] lives matter.” The director confronts us with much to think about concerning our racial and criminal justice systems and attitudes.
What I liked most about the film was the portrayal of the humanness of so many of the series’ individuals and the director’s obvious desire to understand the behavior of all her characters.
But what I liked most about the film was the portrayal of the humanness of so many of the series’ individuals and the director’s obvious desire to understand the behavior of all her characters. As Alexander Pope once wrote, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” None of the characters are perfect. They all have their faults and flaws. In that, they are like the rest of us—imperfect creatures.
The black Harper and white Rinaldi (“Fish”), whose interplay and banter remain entertaining throughout the series, are both flawed individuals. She (Harper) has a drinking problem. He harbors some racist assumptions, fails to adequately protect a key witness, and has a poor relationship with his ex-wife, who slept around with other policemen.
Brenton’s parents also both have their imperfections. At one point Latrice intends to get a gun and kill Peter Jablonski (Beau Knapp), the cop driving the car that killed her son. She accuses her husband, Isaiah, of not knowing and loving their son enough. And it is true that in his almost obsessive concern with earning enough money and moving out of “the projects” to a worthwhile home, where he could keep his boy (Brenton) out of trouble, he paid insufficient attention to Brenton’s needs. He was not empathetic enough. For a while Latrice moves out of the family home.
Even the four police who cover up the accident also have their good qualities. Jablonski’s superior, Mike DiAngelo (David Lyons), the most outspoken racist among the four men in his unit, demonstrates moments of genuine concern and compassion for the three cops who work for him.
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The incident that sets the whole drama in motion is an accident. Jablonski tells DiAngelo that they should report it, but his superior talks him out of doing so, saying he—a white cop hitting a black youth—would be crucified. (More about what Jablonski knew immediately following the accident will not be revealed until Episode 10, and even then we will still not know exactly what he realized.) Jablonski is new to the unit he’s in, and he’s younger than DiAngelo. In retrospect, he made a terrible mistake not reporting the fatal happening. But we probably all know of occasions when younger people follow the advice of more experienced authority figures even when they shouldn’t. Throughout the series, we are made aware of the guilt he feels about the accident and the cover-up. (In this feeling, he is like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, and we wonder whether, like the Russian criminal, his guilt will finally lead him to confess.)
By showing us the interactions of the four policemen and their families—for example, celebrating the Christening of Jablonski’s baby—we understand better the characters of the four men, how they view the world and how (especially Peter Jablonski) became the men they did. We also come to understand better the women in their lives. In one crucial scene, Peter tells his wife he will confess if she wants him to, but she tells him not to.
By her desire to portray the motivations of her characters, director Sud is not diminishing any distinction between good and evil. Although all her characters may share the human quality of containing a mixture of good and bad traits and being prone to err, some people are better than others. Before the death of their son, the Butler parents were hard-working and church-going individuals. Isaiah sometimes worked extra-shifts at his slaughterhouse job. In an early scene we see Latrice giving a schoolgirl a ride home from the school where she works. (Isaiah’s brother Seth, despite some earlier gang involvement, is a military veteran who has tried to straighten his life out.)
The four policemen are not as ethical. Not only are they involved in the cover-up, but also each take a cut of drug money by an arrangement with a local drug dealer, and all but Jablonski are involved in the murder of a potential witness. (Although drug-dealing is not a major focus of the film, enough scenes are provided that we gain insights into the lives of dealers and users.)
In an interview, director Sud stated that she wished to do “a deep dive into all the players” involved in tragedies like the killing of Brenton Butler, focusing on the characters and reserving judgment on them.” It was her mission “from the very beginning to not judge, to simply listen, to write human truths to inhabit the skins of every single character and walk in their shoes.”
Her words about walking “in their shoes” reminded me of those of former President Obama in his The Audacity of Hope, where he described empathy as “the heart of my moral code,” and as a “call to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes.”
In two previous essays, one on historians’ need for empathy and the other on the connection of empathy with wisdom, and in a review of a book about understanding enemy leaders and nations, I stressed the importance of trying to imagine ourselves in someone else’s position. Such empathizing does not mean sympathizing or condoning actions like those of the four policemen in Seven Seconds. But it does mean, as Sud stated, “reserving judgment on them” until we first make the effort of putting ourselves in their positions. Only after we do that are we in the proper position to hope and believe that we would have acted more ethically.
Sud’s position of putting empathy before judgment helps make Seven Seconds not only a riveting and enlightening drama, but also a very humanistic one.
Walter G. Moss