Husband-and-wife producers combine criminal justice and a “badass mystery” in Shots Fired.
Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood have been committed to each other and to their work — both personal and shared — since meeting in the writers’ room of A Different World, the Cosby Show spinoff, in 1992.
Gina credits a Television Academy internship she scored the year before at Quincy Jones Entertainment with helping her enter the business — and indirectly leading her to Reggie.
Subsequently they both moved from TV to film: Gina wrote and directed movies like Beyond the Lights, which Reggie produced, while he cowrote and directed Biker Boyz, which Gina produced. Their latest creation is the Fox event series Shots Fired.
“I don’t think Reg and I were thinking of going back to TV,” Gina says. The shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown changed their minds. “After those murders, and the unrest that happened, Dana Walden [cochairman of Fox Television Group] wanted to address what was going on.” Walden enlisted Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment, who turned to the Bythewoods.
“When we talked, it felt like an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up,” Gina says. “They were willing to do something in this area, and they gave us the freedom to come up with whatever idea we wanted. We have two boys, and it was important for us to put something into the world that could spark conversation and, hopefully, spark change.”
But Shots Fired, premiering March 22, isn’t all message. Along with the show’s social consciousness, Reggie says, “we wanted to put together a badass mystery that can entertain.”
The 10-hour series, which they created and executive-produce, starts with a Department of Justice investigation into the death of an unarmed white teenager at the hands of a black police officer in a small North Carolina town. But as the story unfolds, the uninvestigated death of another unarmed teen — this one black — is revealed. The story becomes a murder mystery as well as a look at the racially charged atmosphere around the events.
The producers — and their material — lured actors like Helen Hunt, Richard Dreyfuss and star Sanaa Lathan, who plays investigator Ashe Akino. “It wasn’t a regular sort of gig, where you hope it’s hot and gets good ratings,” Reggie says. “Obviously we want all that, but one of the reasons a lot of these actors signed on is because they bought into this vision of giving a view from every seat of the house.”
That view incorporates their personal experiences, which include encounters with law enforcement “that weren’t always positive,” Reggie says. But he fondly recalls his close relationship with his grandfather, a long-time New York police officer. “He taught me how to drive — and told me what to do when a racist cop pulls you over.”
Playing opposite Lathan is Stephan James as special prosecutor Preston Terry. He’s an optimist, while Lathan’s character is more experienced and jaded. “We’re excited about the opportunity to have two black leads who have differing points of view,” Gina says. “That’s fairly rare in television.” With all of the show’s angles, “the question is, can we challenge perspectives?” Reggie says. “Hopefully, we did.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2017