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Will "Shots Fired" Reach Beyond Black Audiences?

Sharon Kyle: Seemingly unscripted, "Shots Fired" producer, Reggie Rock Bythewood, a black man, talks about the impact of the George Zimmerman verdict on his unconsolable 12-year-old son Cassius and how he and his wife felt moved to do something more than just wrap their arms around their child.
shots fired

Stephan James, Sanaa Lathan, and Will Patton

Being an active volunteer member of the ACLU provides me with lots of opportunities to serve my community. Aside from the reward of knowing that standing with the ACLU means you're standing on the right side of justice, I occasionally get an extra perk. Being invited to attend an early screening of “Shots Fired” with a few hundred others at the Pacific Design Center last night was one such perk.

"Shots Fired" is a 10-hour series slated to air on Fox beginning March 22nd. The brainchild of husband/wife team Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood, the series, which is set in a small town in North Carolina, explores the criminal justice system from several vantage points. Beginning with a familiar scene—the police shooting of an unarmed young man—the series pivots and navigates through the back story of a diverse set of characters.

Sound familiar? I thought so, too. For a minute, I contemplated passing on the invitation, but these past few weeks have been so hectic I felt I needed an evening out. So I took off with my brother and we headed west to the Pacific Design Center.

Arriving at the venue, the first thing I noticed was a sea of black faces. The ACLU, which deserves big kudos for leading the pack in the fight against the attack on our civil liberties by the Trump administration, was a co-sponsor of the evening. After ten years of active involvement in this awe inspiring organization, one of the things I have regretfully gotten used to whenever I attend a big ACLU co-sponsored event is finding myself in a sea of white. But not this night. So began the departure from the expected.

"Shots Fired" producer, Reggie Rock Bythewood, a black man, talks about the impact of the George Zimmerman verdict on his unconsolable 12-year-old son Cassius.

The screening opened with a monologue by Reggie Rock Bythewood. Seemingly unscripted, Bythewood, a black man, talks about the impact of the George Zimmerman verdict on his unconsolable 12-year-old son Cassius. Bythewood and his wife felt moved to do something more than just wrap their arms around their child and so began the idea for "Shots Fired". I'm not sure this monologue will be part of the series when it airs but I hope so. It grabbed my attention and sets a tone that prepares the audience to be more than entertained.

I won't give away any of the plot but I will say that the creators of "Shots Fired" attempt to do more than serve up the typical mind-numbingly predictable “grabbed from the headlines” police drama fare that's dominated network television for the past decade. In many ways they succeed.

I only saw the first episode but the writers laced it with enough hints of what is yet to come that I left the screening wanting more.

After the screening, the creators, producers and several of the actors talked to the audience about the behind the scenes experiences of this racially diverse crew who were filming while at the same time watching real-life headlines flash before them. The stories dominating the news at the time were multiple police killings of black men including the killing of Philando Castile and Walter Scott.

For an hour or so at the post-screening reception, the artists and attendees ate finger foods and sipped wine while sharing how the film evoked their common feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, and hope.

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shots fired

Retired LAPD Sergeant Cheryl Dorsey and "Shots Fired" star Sanaa Lathan at premiere.

My brother and I were among them as was one of my fellow ACLU board members. We chatted a bit about the film. Then our conversation shifted to the demographics of the audience – an audience that appeared to be 95% black. My thoughts wondered back to the contrast between this audience and those attending most ACLU events.

Based on a CNN Media piece attributing the success of several recent TV series to a high percentage of black viewers, it's likely the demographics of the screening audience might be a harbinger of what 20th Century FOX Television, the producer of the series, is expecting. African-Americans have propelled primetime ratings for the network with TV hits like 'Empire'. Speaking of broadcast television, CNN called 2015 the Year of the African-American Viewer.

But the big downer for me is that in order for this country to transcend our racist roots, these kinds of stories have to appeal to the broader American audience—otherwise it'll just be more preaching to the choir.

My jaded self looks at who did not turn up for the screening and thinks this very well done series will be widely seen but primarily by blacks. I hope I'm wrong. But the proof will be in the Neilsen Ratings pudding.

The evening's moderator encouraged everyone to use social media to spread the word. I echo his words, “Share, share, share”. In this pivotal time—a time like no other—let's help to expand and broaden the base that will see this much needed series. Not only should we not build walls, we should also tear down invisible walls—walls that keep our communities so separate from each other.

Shots Fired premiers on March 22, 2017 on Fox. It stars Sanaa Lathan, Stephan James, Stephen Moyer, Will Patton, Mak Wilds, Aisha Hinds, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Conor Leslie, DeWanda Wise and Richard Dreyfuss. Guest stars include Helen Hunt, Jill Hennessy and Dennis Haysbert. I applaud Gina Prince-Bythewood, Reggie Rock Bythewood, and everyone associated with the making of "Shots Fired." They've done their part in moving this message forward, now let's do ours.

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Sharon Kyle

Sharon Kyle

Twitter: @ShotsFiredFOX / #ShotsFired
Instagram: @ShotsFiredFOX
Facebook: Shotsfired

Sharon Kyle
Publisher, Hollywood Progressive