Just four episodes into Seven Seconds, the tension, darkness, grittiness, everyday micro-aggressions and rampant sexism that peacefully co-exists within our legal system are uncomfortably visible. The Netflix original series centers around the racial injustices that take place within America’s police departments, and exemplifies the country’s chronic disease of dropping unarmed black bodies into the hands of morally corrupt enforcers.
Directed by Veena Sud, the 10-episode program chronicles the precarious process that assistant prosecutor K.J. Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and detective Joe “Fish” Rinaldi (Michael Mosley) are left with when 15-year-old Brenton Butler dies after a hit-and-run by Peter Jablonski (Beau Knapp). The Jersey City police officer ran over the teen while rushing to attend the birth of his child, and left him laying in the snow at a park.
Brenton’s family—consisting of his mother Latrice (Regina King) and father Isaiah (Russell Hornsby), two average working class church-going African-American folk—is left devastated and hungry for answers. But unfortunately they fail to get them, as the corrupt cops who work with Jablonski do everything they can to cover for him.
While the plot is based on Butler’s death, the intricacies of being a person of color in America are heavily showcased through the rest of his family, and Harper along with her fellow Latino co-workers.
Harper, a black woman, is boggled down by life. Her aura is gloomy, stoic and jaded. Viewers get the sense that she’s tired of doing this kind of work, or for that matter, tired of seemingly being unable to deliver justice where it’s due.
In one poignant scene, she attempts at reducing the time a black teen is locked up in a juvenile detention center during a court hearing. But as his parents watch helplessly, a Latino judge denies her offer and he is sentenced to a lot more time than anticipated or deserved. It’s a far too common story that continues to feed the narrative of mass incarceration within the black community.
Underneath it all, Harper struggles with alcoholism and becomes victim of her co-worker’s lewd comments and racist notions. Amid the hardships of being a black woman that works in a system that isn’t made to protect her, she also grapples with being a black woman who has to face telling black parents justice isn’t being served albeit it’s being deserved.
“She doesn’t want to be the face of that situation because she feels like she can’t do it,” Ashitey says of her character’s conundrum over the phone. “She knew she would fail in that situation especially knowing the legal system the way she does.”
“It must be very hard to be a prosecutor or DA of color,” she continues. “They don’t want to be in a situation where people look at you like you have to fix something all the time because you’re part of this community, and you could prosecute this person, but you don’t because you don’t really have that power.”
Within the series, white privilege is also, of course, highlighted. There’s a joke about Puerto Ricans needing legal status, when they are granted U.S. Citizenship at birth. Brenton’s father shows up at the police precinct, and ends up getting beaten and arrested simply for being inquisitive about his son’s death. It’s like attempting to find godly redemption inside a devil’s playground.
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates breaks down the turbulent chasm that exists between black people and law enforcement in America by referencing the killing of Michael Brown in his book, Between the World and Me.
“Michael Brown did not die as so many of his defenders supposed. And still the questions behind the questions are never asked,” he writes. “Should assaulting an officer of the state be a capital offense, rendered without trial, with the officer as judge and executioner? Is that what we wish civilization to be? And all the time the Dreamers are pillaging Ferguson for municipal governance.”
As the series trickles down, the investigation leads to a catholic school girl named Nadine (Nadia Alexander) whose heroin addiction leads her to trick to support her habit. Her presence in the series adds to the heroin epidemic conversation that’s steadily infiltrating mundane American backyards. Essentially, everything leads to a big court feud between the plaintiffs and the defendants. But in the end you question if this was really a triumph.
Peter didn’t kill Brenton because he is black. However, his life is devalued because he is black. Amid the importance of seeking justice, the real message becomes very clear: black lives matter until law enforcement decides they don’t. Toni Morrison questions the double edge sword of what a black body means in society in The Origin of Others, “Once blackness is accepted as socially, politically, and medically defined, how does that definition affect black people?”
In Brenton’s case, Peter had seven seconds to define his worth.
Seven Seconds premieres February 23 on Netflix.