This post contains spoilers for the finale of "Seven Seconds."
In the last few years alone, there have been countless films and TV shows that highlight and interrogate the issue of racist police brutality in America. I’ve seen so many stories—from Shots Fired, The Divide, and even Law & Order—about innocent Black people being fatally shot by police officers who go on to face no consequences; at this point, I’ve come to expect these shows to leave me feeling numb, depleted, and helpless. But after watching the new Netflix series Seven Seconds, I faced a surprising, new feeling: catharsis.
Seven Seconds follows the case of Brenton Butler (Daykwon Gaines), an innocent Black teen who dies in a hit-and-run involving a white police officer (Beau Knapp). Clare-Hope Ashitey stars as assistant district attorney KJ Harper, who doggedly pursues the case and tries to bring Brenton’s killer to justice—all the while confronting a corrupt police department and her own devastating past.
After collecting a stockpile of incriminating evidence against the officer and his peers, who went out of their way to hinder the investigation, KJ delivers her final plea to convict the officer, only to meet a disappointing verdict. Ashitey shines most in an intense scene in which KJ and Brenton’s mother Latrice (two-time Emmy winner Regina King) share a moment to acknowledge that, at the very least, they brought the truth of Brenton's death to light.
Ashitey (whose resume includes Children of Men and Shots Fired) chatted with Broadly about trying to deliver an honest portrayal of a Black woman confronting the American judicial system’s flaws from within.
BROADLY: What drew you to KJ and the series?
CLARE-HOPE ASHITEY: The writing and the storyline. I read the pilot script back at the end of 2016 and immediately knew that it was something special. All the characters seemed complex and real and interesting in some way. I’m also passionate about the subject matter. I think especially at that time, then with the election of Trump, everything felt a bit hopeless. [This story] felt important.
How challenging was it to play a character who was expected to be strictly professionally invested in a case that obviously had such a personal impact on her as a Black woman?
It was a tough character to put together, which also made it interesting. There were a lot of complex issues, and a lot that I, being foreign, had to try to come to grips with and try to learn how things work here. Not just the technical things and the legal system, but also how people are with each other. It was difficult to put together. It’s a very different system here. I have worked in the U.S. once before this, in North Carolina, and had to struggle with it then. Understanding the racial geography in the U.S. is an ongoing project and very tough for me, frankly. It seems to be woven into the fact that that’s just how things work here and at the forefront of a lot of things here in a way that it doesn’t feel like it is at home.
One of the things that struck me about the series is the fact that the verdict mirrors the injustice we see in so many real-life cases. Were you expecting or desiring an outcome that holds the perpetrator accountable?
I didn’t, and I never do. Because fairy tale endings are for fairy tales. I think it’s okay that the series focuses on trying to reflect and examine real life, especially when you’re dealing with something that reflects the real suffering of a lot of people. You must try to be honest. I’m always disappointed when stories are not honest. I think it disengages people from the story that you’re trying to tell. I would not have nearly been as passionate about this series as I am if it had not been honest.
Because of the heaviness of the subject, and how it also reflects society, how were you able to remove yourself from the role once production had wrapped?
I went through a real range of emotions. There were days when the team would go to a bar and hang out and chat and wind down that way. Then I would go home and reflect on what we’d done that day. It’s hard and it’s painful, but I think it’s important to do that at times. I think it’s important to feel bad and lean into that.
I think that’s also something that KJ struggles with herself, especially since this is not her first police brutality case. It seems like she’s at a point that a lot of people can relate to, when she feels completely exhausted, like she wants to help but understands that she might not actually get anywhere.
Absolutely. From an outsider’s perspective, when you look at the U.S. judicial system on paper and how it functions, you look at the numbers and you see how different the experiences are for some people in a different socioeconomic realm and for certain people on the different end of the color spectrum. It is so clear how unjust and how bad it is. Then you think, well why don’t people just riot in the streets? But it’s not that people have accepted the situation for what it is. People are just defeated. I’m talking about all people who care, not just people who work in the legal system. When KJ first came to work, she might have been a little idealistic and full of energy. Then she hops onto this juggernaut that’s going in one direction and it’s so much bigger and more powerful than her. She can’t do anything to turn it around and she just feels really defeated.
As Brenton’s mother, Latrice is approaching the case in a very visceral way. While KJ is also invested in seeking justice, she is still an officer of the law and therefore representative of the institution that failed Latrice’s son. How were you able to contend with this dynamic in scenes with King?
That situation was one that people who work in the legal system face all the time. I spoke to some people like that. It’s so tough. They’re trying to be good, but then they feel like traitors and sometimes they get called traitors. I think for KJ in that situation that she feels a sense of shame. She knows that they’re going to be looking to her as an African-American woman to be on their side and say, “I’m going to fix it.” But at the same time, she knows from experience in her work that she can’t. It’s a very uncomfortable situation for her.
By the end of the series, though, there is a moment between KJ and Latrice in the courtroom that I found very cathartic. Despite the fact that the officer got off with a light sentence, there is a sense of mutuality and respect between these two characters. What was your read on that when you first were presented that scene?
Very similar. It was a very emotional day of shooting. These two characters had such an antagonistic relationship and for a long time KJ tried to avoid that possibility and kept dropping the ball. It just felt like a moment where these two women on many levels are acknowledging the journey that they had been on, acknowledging what they had done together as a team. It felt like a very powerful moment at the time when we were doing it.
Yes, Latrice seems like she had come to accept the situation, as much as she could. It also felt like KJ did everything that she could, and she was finally able to give herself that credit.
I don’t think this is the exact result that they wanted, but I think what they both wanted was for the truth to come out. For so many people who suffer injustice, they just want people to know what happened. The injustice is so paralyzing that the mere fact that the truth is finally out is justice in and of itself. Latrice finds peace in finally being able to understand what happened and for other people to also understand what happened. I hope that this story brings some validation for people who experience these realities. I really hope it brings greater empathy.