Friday, July 13, 2018
July 13, 2018: Representing Race: Seven Seconds
[On July 11th, 1960 Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird was first published. One of the most taught books in American classrooms, Mockingbird offers (among other things) a flawed but vital representation of race in American society and history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such complex racial representations, leading up to a weekend post on mystery fiction and race!]
On two ways that the flawed but compelling Netflix show challenges our conversations about race.
At the heart of Netflix’s TV series Seven Seconds (2018) is a story we’ve seen far too many times in recent years: an African American teenager killed by a white cop. The details are a bit distinct from the most frustratingly common news stories (the killing in this case stems from a hit and run car accident; the cop’s colleagues attempt to cover up his involvement), and the young man’s parents and military veteran uncle (played to pitch-perfect perfection by Regina King, Russell Hornsby, and Zackary Momoh respectively) are each well-drawn and complex characters who respond to the tragedy in specific and compelling ways. There’s also something to be said for representing in a cultural work, with all the layers of creative storytelling and character development and thematic nuance that such texts can offer, a kind of contemporary news story with the broad strokes of which we all feel painfully familiar. Yet if Seven Seconds focused mostly on this tragic and senseless death and its familial effects, it would nevertheless to my mind not break particularly new ground.
Seven Seconds goes well beyond that focus, however. Its white characters, especially the cop and his crew, feel as if they’re drawn directly and relatively blandly from shows like The Shield. But two of its African American characters in particular feel far more ground-breaking and significant. The show’s principal protagonist is Clare-Hope Ashitey’s prosecutor KJ Harper, a depressed alcoholic whom we first meet attempting to argue a case in court while still drunk from the night before. As an African American female anti-hero (or at least highly flawed hero), KJ could be put in conversation with the leads of shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder. But my understanding of those characters (and I don’t know either very well, so feel free to correct me in comments!) is that they are driven at least in part by self-interest (and/or their interpersonal and romantic relationships), whereas in KJ’s case her gradual commitment to pursuing a case against the police officer and his peers comes at the direct expense of her own career, reputation, and even safety and well-being. To some degree KJ remains the flawed anti-hero right through the season’s conclusion, yet in other ways she becomes a truly heroic and inspiring alternative to much of the show’s world and worldview. Makes for a pretty interesting African American protagonist all the way around!
The show’s other most interesting and important character [serious SPOILERS in this paragraph] begins as a seemingly minor character and evolves into a central focus. Corey Champagne’s Kadeuce Porter appears to be a childhood friend of the murdered teenager (Brenton Butler) who has since joined a dangerous street gang (a gang to which both the police and media attempt to connect Brenton as well). That’s all true as far as it goes, but what we gradually learn is that Kadeuce and Brenton were also gay and in love, a secret that the young men kept from everyone around them but that became the most powerful and inspiring force within their own individual and shared lives. The revelation allows for thoughtful examinations of how other characters—particularly Russell Hornsby as Brenton’s father Isaiah Butler—respond to this aspect of Brenton’s life and identity. But it also offers a potent representation of intersectionality, one not based in theory or philosophy but in fundamental questions about identity and what factors shape each and every life. A central goal of Seven Seconds is to create conversations that continue beyond the show’s conclusion, and to my mind it is the story of Kadeuce and Brenton that could most fully and compellingly inspire such dialogue.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other representations of race you’d highlight?