A racially charged shooting in a small North Carolina town is the setting for the provocative new limited series “Shots Fired.”
Inspired by a spate of murders of young black men by white cops in several American cities and towns, the series is an intricately plotted tale of two crimes — the one we see in the first five minutes of the pilot and the crime Dept. of Justice investigator Ashe Akino (Sanaa Lathan) and special prosecutor Preston Terry (Stephan James) uncover in the process of doing their job. As these two outsiders interrogate the denizens of Gate Station, NC, we come to understand how racial divisions have ensnared its entire class structure. Those whose lives aren’t forever altered by the crime seek to profit from it — either politically or spiritually.
The fuse is lit when Deputy Joshua Beck (Mack Wilds) pulls over Jess Carr (Jacob Leinbach), an unarmed white college student who appears to be driving drunk in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Beck, who suspects Carr is looking to buy drugs, claims he refused to step out of the vehicle and then reached for his gun, prompting Beck to fire his weapon four times. Gov. Patricia Eamons (Helen Hunt) doesn’t want “another Ferguson” on her hands — especially as she is up for reelection — and soon enough, the Justice Dept. sends Terry, one of its finest civil rights lawyers, to handle the case because “it’s easier in this climate. Only a black man can indict a black cop.”
If Terry is the show’s naïve idealist, Akino, his DOJ counterpart, is the acid rain on his by-the-books investigation. A hard-boiled, shrewd and temperamental veteran, she is intrepid. But winning over the confidence of Gate Station’s denizens takes time, and little bombs keep going off, as when a video is leaked to the media of Beck talking about shooting “crackers.” Most disturbing is the discovery that, three weeks prior to the Carr shooting, a young black child named Joey Campbell was murdered. That unsolved crime gives “Shots Fired” real suspense and lifts the enterprise above the level of a trendy, socially conscious police procedural, especially when a kid who knows too much about the Joey Campbell case is nearly killed and goes missing. Soon, Terry and Akino have two murders to solve.
Producers Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood deepen their exploration of racial issues through this secondary case, as it brings out the worst in everyone — from Gate Station’s hammer-headed police lieutenant (Stephen Moyer) and the social media-savvy preacher (Aisha Hinds) to the wily governor, who makes a show of visiting the dead boy’s mother (DeWanda Wise) to extend her advantageous sympathy. These are some scary people — and you can see why the characters on “Shots Fired” are afraid to talk. It might be the last thing they say.
The strength of the cast overrides some of the plot’s contrivances. Akino doesn’t stray very far from the cliché of the female TV cop whose personal life is a disaster — but Lathan makes her so fierce that you can overlook the writers’ lack of imagination. As the governor, Hunt is a toxic, briefcase Barbie. Jill Hennessy has her best role in years as Alicia Carr, the grieving mother of the dead college student. Veteran character actor Will Patton, who plays the town sheriff, can still make you squirm with a simple smile. The lesser-known cast members — from Wilds, Wise and especially Marqus Clae as Cory, the missing boy — give their characters a palpable yet understated empathy.
Fast-paced and trenchant, “Shots Fired” is a cynical snapshot of the American justice system in freefall.