Many of us might be facing fatigue from either an onslaught of scripted programming centering on police violence or more so the fact that art has begun to mirror the brutality of real life. But don’t apply either of these thoughts to a new series hitting Netflix on Friday.
Seven Seconds, conceived as an anthology from Veena Sud (creator of the cult hit, The Killing), is worth the while — mostly due to the outstanding performances from its cast. Sud assembled a talented group of acclaimed directors for the ten episodes, including Victoria Mahoney and Ernest Dickerson.
The story centers on a white, rookie narcotics cop Peter Jablonski (Beau Knapp), who, due to distracted driving, fatally hits a black teen named Brenton Butler. Jablonski calls his co-workers, corrupt cops who insist that they cover up the crime. Prosecutor KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Asheity) and detective Joe “Fish” Rinaldi (Michael Mosley) are tasked with the case as Butler’s family, mother Latrice (Regina King), father Isaiah (Russell Hornsby) and uncle Seth (Zackary Momoh), as well as the community at large, are impacted by the incident.
What Seven Seconds does is turn a “whodunit” on its head. We know what happens to Brenton Butler. We see it in the very first moments of the series. What the series does, however, is show the ripple effects that Butler’s death has on everyone and why. Although there is no mystery here, focusing on the aftermath works in the show’s favor. We don’t need a mystery here, we need a solid depiction of why this isn’t an isolated incident — it’s the whole system, which is set against black folks.
Immediately after the accident, Butler’s body is disregarded as if he’s not human. From that moment, he’s labeled anything but what he was — a child. Harper and Rinaldi, with their backs against the wall, are set on uncovering the truth not only about what happened to Brenton, but to disprove the perception that he was a “gangbanger.”
The impacts the death and investigation it has on his family are mighty. The relationship between Brenton’s churchgoing parents, Latrice and Isaiah are tested as Latrice begins to question her faith as she is determined to find out what actually happened to their son — at any cost. There’s also the added dynamics of Isaiah’s brother who he raised as his own, Seth, a military vet who went to Afghanistan to escape gang life, is back from war and is struggling to adjust to civilian life. As the family member who knew Brenton the best, he tries to pull the family together, but his actions only continue to upend them.
The actions of the corrupt narc cops here are quite stupid, honestly. The initial act was not malicious of intent, but everything following shows the disregard for black bodies and society’s depiction of the black male. Not that this should make him less or more worthy of life in society’s eyes, this stereotypical depiction of the black male, we see, is not Brenton Butler. With a persona of this teen gang member thrust upon him we learn that this was not the case at all, and the reveal of who Brenton Butler truly was added a powerful, perfect layer to the series.
At its best, Seven Seconds is a masterclass in acting from multiple Emmy-winner Regina King and veteran actor Russell Hornsby, who both bring Emmy-worthy performances. Honestly, no one right now on television brings an emotional reaction like King, and she’s at her best here. Hornsby, as a father with grief, coming to terms with realizing he didn't know his son that well, is exceptional here as a foil to King.
Aside from the veterans, numerous newcomers across the board leave lasting impressions. British actors Claire-Hope Asheity and Zackary Momoh make not only their major American television debuts, but both arguably step into their biggest roles so far on TV overall. Asheity was tasked with carrying the show and she came to play ball, delivering tortured, yet passionate prosecutor at every moment. Throughout the series, Asheity is an alcoholic with inner demons, wrangling with self-doubt — and she makes every single moment of it believable. Momoh, toe-to-toe with Hornsby for most of the show, brings a great performance as well. Newcomer Corey Champagne, in his first major role, portrays Kadeuce, an even more tortured character than Asheity’s KJ. Knowing more than he does about the situation at hand, his performance during the reveal of who Brenton really was, as well as the nature of their relationship, is the most riveting moment of Seven Seconds. Portraying another teen character who knows more than she does, Nadia Alexander is a standout here as well.
A shortcoming for the series is it does seem to drag on times, and its 10-episode count could have been chopped down a few for greater impact. Also, the attempts to humanize characters who, for the most part, are not only terribly dumb, but also terribly racist (whether intentionally or not), could have been done without. Call it what it is! The screen time we had learning about their backstories could have been left on the cutting room floor, resulting in a leaner, more digestible show.
However, despite this and the sobering fact that justice isn’t exactly served as the end of the season, the acting and incredibly powerful performances in Seven Seconds make it a must-watch show that you don’t want to miss.
Seven Seconds begins streaming on Netflix this Friday, Feb. 23