‘Seven Seconds’ Accurately Portrays Race Relations In America, But That’s No Longer Good Enough
America has major race issues. From microaggressions in the workplace to a flawed criminal justice system, racism runs through this country's veins. And Netflix's newest series Seven Seconds (executive producer: Veena Sud) sets out to explore an unfortunate but common occurrence in the black community: police brutality and the injustice that follows. After watching all 10 episodes of the first season of the anthology series, I can wholeheartedly say that Seven Seconds does an amazing job of bringing America's biased justice system to heartbreaking life. But what the show fails to do is move the conversation forward at all. Spoilers ahead.
The series begins with a white Jersey City police officer named Pete Joblanski (Beau Knapp) rushing through a snowy park after receiving a call that his pregnant wife is in the hospital. Taking his eyes off the road for a split second results in Pete hitting something that sends his blue Ford truck spiraling across the road. When he emerges from his truck he's shocked to find a bicycle lodged under his wheels — indicating that he has struck a child. Obviously, there was no intention behind this tragic accident, but what follows will instantly make viewers' blood boil.
Instead of the officer immediately calling for medical help, he calls a few fellow officers who advise him to flee the crime scene and never tell anyone what really happened. This is strike one. Strike two comes when the officers peer over to where the injured child is lying in a pool of blood and then decide to leave him and drive away. Their logic: He's dead. He's black. And he was riding a type of bicycle that viewers will later learn is associated with a local gang. To the officers, this means that the child's life doesn't really matter as much as their careers. They don't stop to think about the fact that he has a family. All they can focus on is how damaging this accident will be to their careers and the police department, if word gets out that this white cop struck a black teen. You know... politics.
The series explores the emotional toll that the accident takes on the family of the teen — who audiences learn is 15-year-old Brenton Butler — and the surrounding community. Regina King gives a strong performance as his mother Latrice Butler, displaying the range of emotions moms who lose their children experience. A young but determined prosecutor named KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey) seeks justice for the slain child, despite pushback from the city and police department.
It goes without saying that similar to how real-life cases involving black people and white police officers have played out — such as Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland — Brenton does not receive the justice he deserves at the end of the series. And as a black woman, I'm not at all surprised.
The show doesn't tell people of color anything we don't already know. We already know our lives don't matter to the majority of the people in the country. We already expect that we'll be treated unjustly, called "thugs," and have our pasts thrown into our faces if we're ever put into a situation like the one Brenton and his family are in. Likewise, the lack of empathy demonstrated by some of the white characters in the show — who don't hesitate to threaten black teens on the street or hurl racial slurs — isn't groundbreaking.
A black person dying at the hands of a cop isn't a new occurrence either — the likelihood of a black man dying from law enforcement action is 2.8 times higher than for a white man, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Seven Seconds perfectly illustrates everyday, modern American racism, and how cowardly some of the men and women who are supposed to serve and protect every citizen can be. What the show doesn't do is provide any solution for how we as Americans can fix the underlying issues that lead to these unjust legal proceedings.
I would like to have seen more of the activists shown protesting outside the police station and the courtroom; to hear more about why they were chanting. Netflix could have included contact information or other resources for real families seeking justice. I wanted see someone really try to enable Latrice with cold, hard knowledge about how she could fight back, and not just see her be told to pray and forgive.
In 2013 the Black Lives Matter movement was founded and set out to fight violence and systemic racism perpetrated against black people. And despite what counter-protesters of the movement say, the purpose of BLM isn't to say that black lives matter more than anyone else's, but that they matter just as much. And the show missed the perfect opportunity to drive this point home while having a black prosecutor try the case.
KJ, as well as Brenton's family, are forced to defend his humanity by emphasizing how good of a student he was; how he went to church; how he was raised right; how innocent and pure his hobbies were. None of these things matter in death, but black people still have to prove themselves "worthy" of being protected, grieved. Instead of rattling off his resume points, I wanted to see KJ push against the system and stand up to her boss's demands to remain politically correct.
Brenton isn't the only teen killed in Seven Seconds. Nadine, a white heroin addict and star witness for the prosecution, also dies at the hands of the group of cops charged in Brenton's death. Detective Joe "Fish" Rinaldi (Michael Mosley) is absolutely heartbroken by her death, which is understandable, given her charm and sarcastic humor. But it's infuriating to see how hard he ties to keep her safe and comfortable, a mere two or three episodes after writing off Brenton. Strip away color and it's clear that the more problematic teen is Nadine. But instead of KJ reading Fish for filth with a monologue that would make Olivia Pope shudder, she simply drowns her sorrows in drunken karaoke.
Not drug use, family history, or skin color warrants anyone being shot down in the street or run over by cops. You don’t have to look or act a certain way for your life to matter. The problem is that the BLM movement is already misunderstood, and Seven Seconds doesn’t do anything but further separate people on both sides of the divide. Neither side will finish Seven Seconds and feel any more enlightened than they were when they arrived.
No one in the series ever calls out how racist the white officers are being, and none of the black characters ever say, "Hey, I don't have to defend my humanity or that of my child with a laundry list of accomplishments." Old tropes about people of color pulling "the race card" are prevalent, and the age-old speech from a religious person saying that black people need to forgive in times like this is also there. These Seven Seconds scenes keep the conversation about race right where it is.
Surely there are people of all races who can see how toxic the mindsets of these characters are. And while Seven Seconds certainly didn’t move the conversation forward, hopefully its shortcomings will spark a much-needed one on what we need to do next.
Editor's note: After publication, we discovered this article did not meet our editorial standards: There were portions that did not correctly attribute another source. It has been updated to meet our standards.