The truth doesn’t stay buried. Reality always seeks to reveal itself.
Netflix’s new anthology series, Seven Seconds is an intricate work on police/minority relations and the culpability of our criminal justice system. Set in Newark, New Jersey, the series is told from the perspective of a heartbroken couple, Emmy-winner Regina King and Russell Hornsby, a corrupt cop (Beau Knapp) and a troubled assistant district attorney, Clare-Hope Ashitey. The series opens in the wake of a Black teen’s gruesome accidental death at the hands of a cop and the stunning coverup that ensues as a result.
Exploring issues that are as glaring in our country as a pool of blood in the freshly fallen snow, Seven Seconds is visceral, painful, and raw. Ashitey received creator Veena Sud’s script a little over a year ago and was immediately intrigued. Ahead of the series debut, we sat down to chat about Seven Seconds and why she was compelled to step into ADA K.J. Harper’s shoes. “I read a lot of scripts, and they range from terrible, to mediocre, to fantastic, and this is a really good one,” the London native explained. “It was well put together, and the characters were really interesting. They were complicated, which is very attractive to me because when characters are archetypes of the hero or the villain, it doesn’t feel like it’s true, especially in a series. They’re asking you to believe this is the real world and no one is straightforward and uncomplicated. The characters in this certainly weren’t.”
Though she was born and raised in London, England—the daughter of Ghanese immigrants, Ashitey has been well-aware of the continuous incidents of police brutality against Black and brown citizens in the States, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement which has been making strides to combat those types of injustices. “We get a lot of that news in the U.K., and actually quite a lot of coverage of it,” she explained. “So it’s something that most people at home are aware of, and there are lots of names that most people at home are familiar with, so it wasn’t something that was new to me. It’s in the news now, but it’s been going on for a long, long time. I think the concept of tension, racial tension, in the American society, and also tension between the police force and the African American community, whether it’s in the news or not, is never something that’s a surprise to anyone.”
Though fictional, Seven Seconds could have certainly been ripped from the headlines. It’s Ashitey’s character K.J. Harper who stands at the center as the tormented, alcoholic ADA who is desperate to piece the case together. “I liked, that she was troubled and that she was struggling,” Ashitey said. “Watching people try to overcome adversity is quite an interesting thing to watch, and it’s an interesting thing to play, as well — it’s interesting to play with. I’m always more attracted to accurate depictions of people because I don’t think it’s helpful to have archetypes or stereotypes. I’ve been asked before about whether I thought it was difficult to portray K.J. as a Black woman, and if I was worried about issues of representation. I’m really not because I think portraying people as they are and not being one thing or another, and not trying to pretend that anyone is perfect is actually much more helpful to the conversation than trying to just put forward a perfect face or a perfect façade.”
Embodying this very disturbed but brilliant young woman was just one part of the Master of None actress’ commitment to this role, she was also tasked with learning about the U.S. criminal justice system and how people of color in particular frequently fall through the cracks. “It’s a very different system to what we have in the U.K.,” she explained. “I had a lot of homework to do. (It’s) also a very confusing system because each state has their own way of doing things. I understand why there was a system that works in that way, but it also means that you’re in a lottery. How you’re sentenced and how you’re treated differs from state to state. This is a big country, and there are a lot of people that need to be processed, but there are a few things that really didn’t seem to make any sense to me. I went to the courthouse in downtown New York and went to arraignment court and was being taught about how arraignments work. The fact that everyone who has contact with the police, everyone who’s arrested, no matter how low level the misdemeanor, is arraigned before a judge makes absolutely no sense. It doesn’t matter if it’s loitering, or if it’s murder, you appear before a judge, and that just means that there’s a huge backlog in the system.”
Researching and observing the inner workings of the criminal court system helped everything click into place for Ashitey. “Arraignment court runs til the early hours of the morning in shifts,” she realized. “You have public defenders and defense attorneys, and judges who are stuck in this court, sometimes in the middle of the night — personal bias and poor judgment is always going to come into that situation because who wants to be at work, looking at people who have committed crimes in the middle of the night? It feels sort of ridiculous to introduce something that hampers the system so much in a system that’s already struggling.”
In the series, Brenton Butler, a black teen is accidentally run over by a police officer and left for dead in the fallen snow –his dark red blood seeping into the stark whiteness. That image in itself – striking and upsetting set the tone for the duration of the Seven Seconds, “It’s incredibly powerful,” Ashitey expressed. “I think that’s what the creators and designers were going for, and the image of that thing that gives you life no longer being inside the body is really powerful, but it’s pretty horrific to see that and to understand that that is something that happens to a person. You start thinking about what justice might mean for that person, and how the family is affected, and how other people that are put in contact with that are affected.”
Seven Seconds certainly doesn’t shy away from examining how Brenton’s family is affected. His parents Latrice and Isaiah Butler played by Regina King and Russell Hornsby respectively are shattered by their son’s death. “Russell and Regina who play his parents are fantastic actors, and it makes my job a lot easier because you’re having to act less when you’re just reacting to what people in front of you are doing, “ Ashitey explained. “I think they did a really good job of portraying those parents and of capturing those feelings and those instances. That’s is really hard, and even harder when you have news reports coming in every so often of similar things happening. That there are lots of people, who are just doing this for real all of the time. And it’s heartbreaking. It really is.”
In the midst of such a divisive time in our country, where law enforcement officers have offered little to no solutions for acts of police brutality against minorities, Seven Seconds is significant but also heartbreaking to watch. “There are a lot of people in a lot of places in America for whom this is a reality every day, and it isn’t just something that you’re putting on a TV show, and it isn’t just fiction, “ Ashitey expressed. “I hope for those people, that they find some validation in watching something that reflects their everyday experiences. I think it must be very hard to watch TV and watch the cultural output of your country when it never reflects your experiences because how do you invest in that society? Why on earth would you invest in politics and the economy and education and community in a society that you don’t think sees you in any way? I’m hoping that there is some validation in there for people in those communities and an understanding that, hopefully, we stand shoulder to shoulder with them and that we see them. I think sometimes that’s all that people want. They just want people to see what’s happening because being ignored is such a powerful negative feeling. On the other side of that, there are going to be a lot of people who live in communities where they don’t have much contact with Black and minority ethnic groups, and maybe don’t have much understanding of what life is like for groups like that. I’m hoping that this will take us toward a little bit more empathy and a little bit more understanding of what the experience is like for their fellow Americans because there’s a massive issue in this country. I don’t know what the answer is, and I don’t know when the solution will come, but hopefully, there will be one. But empathy and understanding is the only way to move towards that.”
All episodes of the first season of Seven Seconds will stream on Netflix, Fri. Feb. 23.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami