Picture this, a group of Hollywood executives are sitting around a boardroom table, on the TV a reporter shares news of yet another un-armed Black person unnecessarily murdered by a white police officer. Out loud the conversation revolves around the pressing need to address the issue of police violence against people of Color, as though the lynching of Black and Brown bodies is only a recent phenomenon and not one that sits at the core of our country. Yet, beneath the surface the wheels of capitalism and white supremacy are churning with ideas of how to commoditize the present surge in awareness of racial inequality and the rising prominence of phrases like “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace.” The result is Fox’s new primetime drama “Shots Fired,” a loosely veiled attempt to address concerns of police violence and racial inequities while reinforcing the very ideologies that remain at the core of these issues.
While this hypothetical situation may seem to be a cynical exaggeration of how the 10-part mini-series came to be, the reality isn’t all that far off. According to directors Gina Price-Blythewood and Reggie Rock Blythewood, the two were approached by Fox executives shortly after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the subsequent acquittal of the white police officer responsible for his murder. According to the directors, their hope with the series was to challenge viewers to see police violence as a societal issue as opposed to a strictly racial issue. In an interview with MotherJones.com (2017) Reggie Blythewood explained the decision to center the story around the death of a white teen by saying, “We wanted to create a narrative where we could look at both cases. But to answer your question, there were a lot of people who never saw Trayvon Martin as a kid. He was painted as the victimizer. And Zimmerman got donations from all over the country. So in doing a show that deals with police violence, the question was how do we make those people who sent in the donations see this kid as a human being? One of the things we came up with was to just make one victim white.”
If that logic sounds a little off to you then you aren’t alone. Unfortunately it is just the tip of a very large iceberg masquerading as a racially conscious TV series. Perhaps even stranger is the belief expressed by both directors in an interview with NPR (2017) that in centering the plot around the death of a white teen, white people would come to empathize with and better understand the experiences of Black families and communities who have lost millions of brothers, sisters, mother, fathers, and friends to the systemic lynching and executions that span the history of our country.
As a brief overview, the show is set in a small city on the outskirts of Charlotte, North Carolina, and centers around the story of a Black police officer named Joshua Beck who has killed an un-armed white teenager. In an attempt to “prevent another Ferguson” the NC governor calls for a federal investigation of the shooting, prompting the Department of Justice to send in two Black investigators, Preston Terry and Ashe Akino, who appear to have been selected more because of their race than their expert qualifications. As the plot evolves, the audience comes to learn that the white teenager was not the only young person from the town to have been killed by a police officer. Joey Campbell, a young Black teen, was also killed by a police officer, yet not only was no federal investigation launched, but the local police have actively “encouraged” his mother to remain silent on the murder. The story follows many twists and turns over the first two episodes that leave the casual viewer feeling as though she/he is invested in issues of racial justice, while leaving the critical viewer banging her/his head against the table in frustration.
The Optics of “Optics”
When the head of the Department of Justice informs the District Attorney Preston Terry that he has been assigned to the investigation he says, “…it’s a Black cop and a white kid…she (the governor) wants a Black prosecutor out front, optics, in this climate only a Black man can indict a Black cop without inciting tensions.” While the statement itself is enough to make one’s skin crawl, the fluidity with which it is produced is even more problematic. Certainly why else would you want to put a Yale-educated, expertly qualified prosecutor on such a case if it weren’t for his racial identity? While this is the only moment throughout the first two episodes when the notion of “optics” is mentioned as an aspect of the storyline, the reality is that the entire show is one continuous example of how the notion of “optics” serves to reinforce whiteness and white supremacy through covert messaging and racialized discourse. Going back to the hypothetical conversation among Fox executives, one can be certain that the decision to hire two widely acclaimed Black directors to create the show was couched in the same rationale of optics.
As for the show itself, the optics of whiteness can be found in every single scene, and you don’t even really have to look all that hard. Take for example the part of town where the shooting takes place, an all-Black neighborhood casually referred to as “The Houses.” In this instance alone one has to ask, “Why not give the town an actual name?,” “Why have the town look like a stereotypical all-Black community?,” or “Why describe the community as one where white people go to buy drugs?” All of these decisions serve to depict a community that fits the white perception of what a “dangerous,” Black community must look like. Similarly, in a subsequent scene, the investigators head to the local police department to meet with the accused officer. When they arrive they are quick to notice, though not with much surprise, that all of the other officers in the station are white. While a moderate point is made of this, there is no acknowledgement or comment on the fact that all of the individuals in the station who have been arrested are Black. It is as if a police station filled with Black criminals is totally normal and expected. In her 1992 book entitled Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison offers a critique of how white authors and entertainers craft depictions of Black and Brown bodies in a way that is meant to appeal to a white gaze. There is no question that the optics present throughout the first two episodes of Shots Fired serve to reinforce white stereotypes and imaginaries of Black and Brown life.
Racial False Equivalencies
In addition to problems stemming from the visual dynamics of the show, the plot is also full of what I will call racial false equivalences. By this I mean instances in which the rare or extraordinary racial experiences of white characters are equated to the systemic oppression and marginalization experienced by Black and Brown people. Certainly the most obvious example of this is the show’s central storyline, the idea that one can equate the killing of a white teen by a Black officer with the killing of a Black teen by a white officer is both shortsighted and ignorant of a history of racialized violence and inequality at the hands of the criminal justice system. That said, it certainly makes us white people feel good about ourselves because “see, officers killing Black and Brown people isn’t the result of racism and inherent bias, no, it is just that policing is a stressful job that can cause anyone to make a mistake.” In no small way this racial false equivalency serves to let both white people and police officers off of the hook for the undeniable role that each plays in todays criminal (in)justice system.
A second example of racial false equivalency comes with the revelation that following his graduation from the police academy, Officer Beck is seen on video responding to a question about what he will do now as an officer by saying, “Finally got my license to shoot these crackers.” The implication being that all officers have their slip-ups and racial biases, presumably to minimize the racialized discourse that has been displayed time after time by white officers, politicians, and individuals more generally. Attempts to equate words like cracker or redneck with racial slurs used against racially marginalized people show a lack of understanding of the way that these slurs have served as physical, emotional, and psychological forms of violence against Black and Brown people. Moreover, the desire to excuse or validate the racially hateful comments made by primarily white police officers and other leaders is yet another thinly veiled attempt to reinforce the morality and virtue of whiteness.
Race-Neutrality and Neoliberalism
What ties all of these reifications of whiteness together into one remarkable package are the frequent and almost laughably obvious attempts to advance a race-neutral, neoliberal ideology through the show’s plot and dialogue. I use the term race-neutral to refer to the belief that race as a social construct and basis for systemic oppression does not exist. Similarly, the term neoliberalism is used to describe an ideology in which individual effort and merit are the determinants of success and achievement. As yet another covert example of “optics” the character throughout the first two episodes who is the voice of this race-neutral and neoliberal propaganda is Preston Terry, one of the two Black investigators on the case. When asked how he feels about “those optics” (referring to a Black District Attorney trying a Black officer), Terry says, “…all I care about is the truth, and my truth has no color” followed up by, “…the biggest challenge for us in this office is not only to represent and enforce the law, but to use it to make real the promise of america, the promise of fairness and equality.”
Later in the first episode, after Preston and his partner Ashe discover that a Black teen has also been killed by a police officer (though that case has gone uninvestigated and hushed by local law enforcement), Ashe asks Preston how he can not be concerned about this second murder to which he responds that they need to focus on the case at hand and that she needs to be patient, that justice will come in due time. This “by the books” attitude emerges throughout the first two episodes and largely serves to paint Preston as a racially unbiased Black man, someone who white folks would feel comfortable having as the investigator on their son’s death.
At the end of the day what may be most striking about Fox’s sorry attempt to open a productive dialogue around racial inequities and police brutality in this country is that what I have written three pages about is only the most obvious of the problematic content. I haven’t started with the incredibly sexist portrayal of Ashe Akino as a stereotypical “passionate,” “hyper-sexual,” Black woman who struggles with alcohol and mental health issues. Or the depiction of Shameeka Campbell, the mother of the murdered Black teen, as a single, Black mother trying to raise two young Black boys. Personally, I don’t quite know what the aim of the directors was for this show, but what I can say for certain is that whatever shots they did fire have completely missed their mark.
Morrison, T. (1992). Playing in the Dark. Vintage.