Back in 2015, Veena Sud noticed how often she would turn on her television and see news stories of black men and children being shot to death, sometimes in the back, by police officers. The images haunted her but also spoke volumes to her about the “value of a life in this country” and she began to realize she had a story she wanted to tell in that arena.
“What spoke to me most powerfully about the images I was seeing were the incidences of these children, in some cases, their bodies being left out on the street for hours in public view,” Sud tells Variety.
A mother herself, Sud notes that there is nothing worse that a parent can go through than the death of a child, and that tragedy was “compounded by the fact that their body is treated with such disrespect,” she says. “I really wanted to craft a show around the notion of a body out in the snow and the heartache and heart sickness a mother and father would feel knowing their child was out there.”
That show became “Seven Seconds,” Netflix’s new drama about an African-American teenager who is riding his bike home when he is struck by an off-duty police officer. The officer calls his friends on the force to help him, who decided to leave the boy in a ditch. The series’ 10 episodes explores the immediate aftermath of the incident, following the boys’ parents as they struggle to keep their marriage together and to get justice for their son, as well as those who are investigating the case — and those who kept the secret of what really happened on that snowy road.
But she wanted to be careful not to make any assumptions. “The very first entry point for me as a writer is to always try to talk and learn about the actual experiences of people who live in the world, who have gone through whatever I’m looking at,” Sud says, who spent time talking to mothers who had lost their sons to police violence, as well as police officers, district attorneys and civil litigators.
“Our aspiration was what is the human story behind the headlines? How does this happen? What does the family go through? How does a man who considers himself a good man live with what he’s done? How does a woman who’s failed miserably in all of the things she’s hoped for and aspired to become a hero?”
Sud wanted to challenge the audience, too, so she focused on flipping assumptions – first by opening the show with police officer Pete (Beau Knapp), who commits the hit-and-run. “There’s always kind of this trope of, ‘Here’s the hero and this is his story,’” she says. As subsequent episodes unfold, more layers of all of the characters get peeled away, further complicating their relationships to each other as well as to the audience.
“[We’re] playing with the notion of who’s the protagonist and whose story are we invested in and trying, as much as possible, to open up that trope and allow audience members to make decisions for themselves,” Sud says.
Sud also made it a point to hold back on the graphic images that so grabbed her attention on the news.
“It’s intentional that we get to know [the victim] Brenton Butler through the love of his mom and his dad and the pain they go through in the hospital. Brenton Butler is not a broken body that we have to stare at,” Sud says. “We’ve seen enough of broken black men and children on our nightly news. Blood in the snow tells the story without objectifying human beings.”
Rather than center the series on a police shooting, Sud chose a vehicular accident because she wanted to explore the crime of omission as well.
“There’s the crime of commission – pulling a trigger and hitting a child – and then there’s the decision-making that comes afterwards to walk away, to not call for help,” Sud says. “Decisions made after the fact are really important because I think they speak to not only those involved but to us as a country. Where is our agency? What are we doing?”
That’s why the writers’ room met with activist organizations in the criminal justice space, including Color of Change in Los Angeles, in order to get a fuller picture of the campaigns against police violence since the murders of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile.
“Are there two Americas where justice is applied differently?” Sud says. “And if that is the case, what is our responsibility – especially in this time that we’re in now – in moving forward as one country?”
Sud’s hope is that the show will leave the audience feeling a “desperate necessity for change” but also a recognition that “we are all part of this experiment of democracy and we all have agency to create [that] change.”
“There’s no sitting on the sidelines for any of us,” she says.
“Seven Seconds” will be available to stream Feb. 23 on Netflix.