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‘Seven Seconds’ Creator Won’t Shy Away from the Anguish of Black Death

We spoke with showrunner Veena Sud about portraying racism and police brutality on TV.

by Noel Ransome
Mar 19 2018, 5:18pm

Image via Netflix

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Showrunner Veena Sud, by virtue of being a woman of color, can’t ignore certain problems. Yes, she’s the showrunner of The Killing, and she’s worked with greats like director Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) and actress Mireille Enos. But for Sud—whose series Seven Seconds, about a black boy killed by a police officer, recently dropped on Netflix—it isn’t always about the accolades.

“Freddie Gray had just been murdered in Baltimore, and it felt like something that reoccured on a nightly basis to another black man or child," Sud told me. "There’s no way I couldn’t address that.”

I get it. When you’re a person of color—or a black viewer for that matter—it isn’t easy to detach from that reality. Michael Brown’s death can never become an unfortunate incident, and the killing of Tamir Rice will never feel like a “mishap” instead of a “murder.”

In Seven Seconds, Sud attempts to come to grips with a similar story: A black boy dies by way of a cop, some crooked cops attempt to cover it up, and a mother—played by Regina King—displays the pain we’ve seen so often away from scripts and cameras.

At a time when films like Black Panther are showcasing optimistic narratives about black life, the racism and the power structures at the heart of Seven Seconds can feel heavy and taxing. But Veena doesn’t want to hear that.

“It’s like, what is it supposed to be? A child died," she said. "This is not a musical or a comedy. We have to be able to tell these stories."

I sat down with the Toronto-born showrunner and Rashad Robinson, the executive director of the civil rights advocacy group Color of Change, to talk about the place for narratives like Seven Seconds, and why they are integral for real change.

VICE: Coming off of The Killing , another crime drama, why was it so necessary for you personally to tell this story?
Veena Sud: Well, just being able to create a female hero that was driven, and deeply imperfect, became a source of inspiration for The Killing. But for me as a storyteller, and a woman of color, I’m always interested being able to create woman heroes who are radically against the grain of what Hollywood usually conceives as a hero, or lead protagonist. I knew after The Killing that I had to find a show that felt really important, deep, and meaningful in a way that I could devote years of my life to. During the time, Freddie Gray had just been murdered in Baltimore, and it felt like something that reoccured on a nightly basis to another black man or child. There’s no way I couldn’t address that.

I noticed that for about half of the show, the incident around the death of a young black boy could been seen as non-racially motivated. It's almost like the cultural climate was to blame for the actions that were taken to cover things up. Is there any truth to that?
Sud: Honestly, everything in terms of this story is motivated by racism in some sense, from the moment those four men decide to walk away from that child. They never say it, nor is it mentioned among each other, but that’s why investigator KJ Harper asks at the very end to an audience, and to everyone that participated in the crime, whether or not they would have walked away from a dying child if they were in fact white. It’s an attempt to layer in the notion of the continual way in which lives are valued in America, and how that in and of itself, without saying so, directly constitutes the practice of racism. All too often, [racism] is seen as something that needs to appear like an action, word, or a blatant form of hatred or discrimination. What I’ve tried to show is that racism can exist due to a crime of omission, which speaks to the value of a black life.

Seeing all of this played out can be hard for a viewer of color. Why is it still so important to tell these stories for the person who may be tired of the reminder?
Rashad Robinson: Well, because our narrative-based movies and TV shows have the ability to reach people, and engage us in ways that an op-ed piece or a or three-minute segment may not be able to. They can hit audiences in their homes and in the places they find comfort. The opportunity for a difference of perspective is maximized in these places. Part of our work at Color of Change is really about shifting both the rules of policy and the unwritten rules that exist within culture. That takes engagement to accomplish. I think that whether people of color feel like it would be too much or not, that’s a decision that needs to be made on a personal basis.

What we do know, however—from the conversations we’ve seen online, and the folks that reached out to us after they’ve heard of our involvement in the writers room with Veena—is that there’s an intense appreciation for these true-to-life stories. Veena also made the point to me the other day that we get a different World War II movie time and again through a white gaze or lens. I think that needs to be mirrored for our own tragedies that continue to happen right here at home.

That’s a really good point Veena. Can you expand on that?
Sud: Of course. I was mostly thinking about the notion of heroes, and my personal goal in upending the traditional Hollywood image that’s exemplified several million times in every World War film we’ve ever seen. But it also involves the sentiment around how heavy the material is. There’s a reason why we, as a nation, revisit World War II, or national traumas over and over. It feels like there can be a national coalescing if we take the opportunity to honestly look at our history. The same should apply to this American tragedy surrounding police violence in black and brown communities. This is a human rights violation that’s happening over and over, and it never does us any good to look away as if it’s no longer happening.

Do you feel that those who have spoken about Seven Seconds recognize that importance? Because some of the reviews were mixed.
Sud: Frankly, when it comes to this World War II comparison, there’s a frustration that I feel sometimes. Most of the things I’ve heard from the white mainstream press around Seven Seconds spoke of how it’s so depressing. Sure, they say it’s socially important, but still really dark and gloomy, with their negative tones. And it’s like, what is it supposed to be? A child died. This is not a musical or a comedy.

Every single year, we look at these same films based around war, with the same cast of characters—all men, all white—and they’re the same people. It’s like we’re led to believe that they were the only individuals who died and fought in these wars. In relation to our domestic past and present when it comes to this topic of police brutality, we have to be able to tell these stories to come to some sort of peace with them, and they shouldn’t be treated any different.

True. Now, I have to mention Regina King. She’s such an underrated actress, and her role was perhaps the hardest of them all in her portrayal of the pain a black woman who loses her son in this way goes through. Tell me what that audition was like.
Sud: [Laughs] Honestly, there was no audition.

Really? Actually, duh, it’s Regina King.
Sud: [Laughs] Exactly. It was literally just me asking if she’d be interested and how honored I’d be if she took on the role and journey of Latrice Butler. She met with one of the moms—all of the writers were consulting mothers whose children were killed by police in Baltimore and the eastern side of the States. I know how important it was for her to honor this story, and with that, there was a lot of rehearsing, and going over the circumstance of what happened when [Butler's] son was hit. I just let her do her thing.

Now Rashad, in this climate, we have a tendency to move onto the next thing. From the viewpoint of Color of Change, what are some of the more pressing issues involving people of color that need a continual focus?
Robinson: The focus for us is on a whole lot of power. People don’t just experience issues, they experience life, and the forces that hold them back make those lives harder. I think Veena displayed this perspective well. Sure, you had issues of the criminal justice system, but we also had economic justice, job security, and a whole host of issues that were at play in Seven Seconds. These elements hold real people back who don’t have the power and agency to resist those barriers.

Color of Change is in place to translate the presence of those issues into the power to change the rules that govern them. We so often have to be thinking about the quarter of the power that involves Washington, DC, and Capitol Hill. But often, it extends to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood. We need more rule breakers in the area of storytelling that will not just be extractive on communities, or tell one side, but instead tell a full story that speaks to the root problems.

Sud: In Hollywood, it truly takes a village to make a TV show that doesn’t focus on one person, one voice, or one showrunner. With my partnership with Color of Change early on, our writers’ room felt like one of the more diverse places in Hollywood. There has to be a sea change in how we find and tell these stories, which extends to who we employ and who we consult with. Who is green-lighting our stories, and who is critiquing them and writing about the nuances of our crafted narratives? Are they paying attention to them, or are they ignoring them? There are so many ways in which a person can go into telling a story in all its truths and in all its conventions, but that can only come with authenticity.

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