If fiction is the lie that tells a deeper truth, the TV crime genre has been, for the most part, the lie that simply tells a lie. As a storyteller (Veena) and an advocate for racial justice (Rashad), we collaborated for the past two-and-a-half years in an attempt to reimagine the roles of cops, victims, prosecutors and communities in order to tell a different kind of story. “Seven Seconds,” which debuted on Netflix earlier this year, is about a police officer who kills a black child in an unintended hit-and-run. A cover-up ensues by a corrupt (and mostly white) police force. Because of the work of a flawed yet determined prosecutor, the perpetrator is brought to trial, though not to justice. How the story ends is brutal and painful, but honest.
Although there are no reliable government statistics on civilians killed by police, data compiled by The Washington Post put that number at an estimated 1,000 shooting deaths per year. Yet, since 2005, a mere 13 of these have resulted in convictions, with sentences sometimes spanning only a few months. What our story unveils is what most people who work in the criminal justice system and study it already know — that it is broken to its very core. The lack of consequences in the police murders of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray is the rule, not the exception. “Seven Seconds” does not assume the innocence of the criminal justice system but portrays how it routinely protects itself and its people, not the communities it is charged to serve.
If the criminal justice system and its main actors — police, prosecutors, judges, forensic experts — are portrayed to be just and fair with a few “rogue” exceptions, then “criminality” itself becomes the pathology. Thus, high-crime neighborhoods are mostly populated by “bad actors” that deserve to be controlled, imprisoned and punished.
While law-and-order shows may provide many audiences with a certain escapism — a fantasy of white hats and black hats in a world of grays — these portrayals have a blast effect that goes beyond the screen. Research shows that inaccurate media portrayals perpetuate anti-black attitudes generally, resulting in police killing black people at higher rates, teachers treating black kids differently, employers treating black interviewees differently, doctors treating black patients differently and voters supporting failed crime policies and mass incarceration because television shows imply these policies are necessary. The irony is that conservative pundits talk about Hollywood as a hotbed of liberal ideas when our industry perpetuates some of the most harmful, regressive norms, especially when it comes to race and crime.
Last year Color of Change, in collaboration with UCLA, published the report “Race in the Writer’s Room: How Hollywood Whitewashes the Stories That Shape America.” A not insignificant finding: Crime procedurals exclude people of color from holding showrunner and writer roles more than any other genre in scripted TV. We tried to do things differently on “Seven Seconds”; it has one of the most racially diverse writers rooms in the industry. The show worked with Color of Change from the start, mining objective information about the inner workings of the criminal justice system that could inform story development, along with testimony from victims’ families and those inside law enforcement.
Together, we see the struggles of so many storytellers who must break the accepted rules of genre to tell authentic stories. We also see the benefit of collaborating to overcome these barriers: first, in channeling different and more accurate information into writers rooms; second, in working to raise awareness in the industry — shifting momentum away from reinforcing the worst practices of the crime procedural genre and toward reshaping it as a force for challenging society to see the criminal justice system critically.
We cannot continue to be part of the mythmaking by glossing over the very real and deadly faults of an institution that impacts so many of our citizens. From Weinstein to #MeToo, from #OscarsSo-White to the cancellation of “Roseanne” and the continuing censorship of “Black-ish,” our industry finds itself in the midst of the culture wars. At its heart, this battle will define who and what America is and will become. No one gets to sit on the sidelines, least of all Hollywood. Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles holding up signs during a recent interview to draw attention to the crisis of the criminal justice system and other NFL players taking a knee to protest police violence challenges the very notion of “Land of the Free” and pushes us to be unerringly clear that “justice for all” is as yet an unrealized dream. We can’t afford to be blind to this, not now, not today, not at a time when so many of our rights are vanishing.
Veena Sud is the creator and executive producer of Netflix’s “Seven Seconds” and was the creator and executive producer on “The Killing.” Rashad Robinson is executive director of the civil rights group Color of Change.