Disclaimer: This article contains major spoilers from Netflix's Seven Seconds.
In Netflix’s new crime drama, Seven Seconds, Russell Hornsby steps into another powerful role.
Hornsby plays Isaiah Butler, whose son, Brenton, was fatally killed by an off-duty police officer in a hit-and-run. The aftermath puts a strain on the relationship between faithful Isaiah, and his wife Latrice, brilliantly portrayed by Regina King, as she continues to lose her own faith. There is the added tension between Isaiah and his younger brother who he raised as his own, Seth (Zackary Momoh), a vet returning home from Afghanistan whose attempts to help his older sibling and sister-in-law inadvertently brings back old wounds.
To describe Isaiah in his own words, Hornsby told Shadow and Act, “He is a strong, passionate husband and father. Who is trying his best to break through a lot of pain and anguish.” This pain and anguish comes from just the tolls and trails of life. “This is what happens to our people. We deal with the hard times day after day. One point in your life you’re ahead, and then life catches up, and then next thing you notice you’re behind. It can't help but make you feel like you’re underwater. It’s painful I think,” he added.
For Hornsby, it's more important for black families and audiences to watch a drama such as Seven Seconds, because of how it hits home. “We see what happens with black mothers and fathers in front of the camera. We see when they have their CNN or 60 Minutes interview. But we don’t see what happens when they go home. We don’t see what happens in the darkness. It is very important that audiences see what happens in the darkness,” he explained. “It’s even more important that black audiences see what happens in the darkness, because I think that for us, there have been so many deaths in the last 5-7 years, that it has almost become white noise. I think that we have lost certain components of why we fight. This would give us an opportunity for us to know this is why we are fighting, this is what I’m feeling. Then we can help others understand and that others empathize. I hope other audiences will take that and understand what we are going through as well, but I hope we understand what it does for us and our community.”
As I noted in a review of the series, Seven Seconds is not a mystery about the crime, but an indictment on the American justice system. “That’s why we’re focusing on the journey, not the destination,” Hornsby said. “We have to take this journey and how it affects all those involved. We’re seeing what this does to families of all different stripes.”
Throughout the series, Hornsby’s Isaiah is a foil to King’s Latrice. While hard, after Brenton’s death, he has to do what he can to continue to provide for his family. Hornsby describes this feeling as “paralyzed” — because Isaiah doesn’t know what else he can do. “I think he is paralyzed and arrested with pain, anguish and fear. We are in as a society that kills black men. He knows that. He’s arrested because what can he do?”
The actor then noted a particular scene in the show where Isaiah and Latrice find out that if charged, the suspect may get little to no time. In this scene, while Latrice gets up and walks out, Isaiah remains in the chair, in shock. Hornsby says the part of the scene was not scripted, but him in that moment. “Because I know what that is,” he said. “In that moment, he could not get up. He (asks himself) what has society done to black men? What has this country done to black men? It disregards that, it lynches that, It neuters that, it castrates that. We don’t look at you (black men) as whole. He’s paralyzed because he was on the road of doing everything right. Then your son is taken away from you and it’s nothing you can do about it.”
Hornsby, who will also play another powerful role as father in the film adaptation of the Black Lives Matter-inspired novel The Hate U Give, says that Seven Seconds is supposed to be painful and it is supposed to hurt, explaining the ways that all of our distractions reveal our pain. “This is how you know when life hurts, Its due to how many distractions we have in our life. We have so many ways you can get away from what’s real. People get up and go to work, come home after work and don’t want to do anything, but maybe watch some Housewives. People are getting their ass kicked, more specifically black people. They know there is no hope, so they are going to take their $15-$20, their McDonald's, their 40 oz., whatever — they’ll have a good time this weekend and start at it again on Monday. There is no way out. We think because we have lofty jobs, lofty positions, these titles, that they are somehow shielded from the real, but that’s not the case.”
This the realization Isaiah has after Brenton’s death. “Before that, he was like, ‘I’m on my way, we got out of the projects.’ Before he didn’t see that. His son had to get snatched before he could realize, ‘This is real.’ And that’s why he was paralyzed and arrested,” Hornsby said, referencing a particular scene in which Momoh’s Seth is encouraging Isaiah to get up to find work and go after his wife who’s also grieving, but he wants nothing more than to sit on the couch and watch TV.
As the series progresses, Hornsby finds out the truth about his son from his best friend, Kadeuce (Corey Champagne), after begging and pleading the teen for answers. Kadeuce finally breaks down and tells him, and Isaiah finds out that his son was not actually in a gang, but was with his best friend Kadeuce the night before, as their relationship had become sexual in nature. This explained why Brenton was riding on that particular bike affiliated with the gang and was riding his bike on that particular path on the way home. At first, Isaiah is in denial and even throws Kadeuce out of his house.
Hornsby explained this denial and how Isaiah began to accept the truth. “He came to grips with his son being gone. Now, his sexuality doesn’t even matter. Let’s be real. I think to say that Isaiah didn’t know that his son was gay is being disingenuous. I think every father and mother knows, they may have sense. We are in denial, I think he was aware, but he was in denial,” he said. “Put that man up to a lie detector, he’ll say he had thoughts. Let’s examine it — that’s why he and his son were so distant. If you’re a man and your son doesn’t want to watch football with you on Sundays, just to be with dad and shit, what do you start to do? You distance yourself from your son. Instead of saying, son, you want to go see this ball game and on the way back grab pizza, and your son wants to stay in his room and draw, then you stop asking. You take your time coming home as a father, you leave home early on a Saturday. The distance becomes vast and wide. Then you lose track of who your son is. So now, at 15, he’s saying to his son’s friend, “Tell me about him, you knew him.”
He says that Isaiah uses these memories not only in order to remember Brenton but to try to ensure the same thing that happened to Brenton does not happen to Kadeuce. “By getting close to his friend, he’s like I got to leave all of that alone. Now I can’t look at you as gay, straight, or whatever. You’re a boy, you’re still a kid. You need help just like my son did, and I wasn’t there to get him.”
As we see in the series, it wasn’t something that he immediately began doing, nor was it necessarily a process. It just happened. “So, he stops judging. It just happened. That’s the beauty of the show. There is no declarative moment where he decided to take his son for who he is, because that doesn’t happen in real life. There is no moment. You just wake up one day and start doing something different.”
After being gone for a period of time, Latrice returns home and to her husband at the end of the series. “We all know that communication is key. I think it would really be truth and reconciliation. I think they need to have a real earnest talk about where they came from and where they are now — and not just about their son — but how they disconnected. Now, we really have to talk about how Latrice stopped seeing Isaiah as a man and what caused that, and blaming him for her son’s murder. This is real family shit. Especially in black culture. What they touch upon is what affects a lot of black couples and families. It’s deep.”
Seven Seconds is streaming on Netflix now.