“Every project I do starts with an image,” says filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood. “For this script, the first image that came to me was a black woman standing in front of a house, looking in as another woman mothers her child–and she’s got a gun in her hand.”
Prince-Bythewood’s new limited series, Shots Fired, premieres on March 22 on Fox. In the first episode, a black police officer shoots and kills a white teenager in a fictional North Carolina town, spurring an investigation that raises profound questions about race, justice and a divided America. Prince-Bythewood says Fox reached out to her in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., protests about writing a series on police shootings in the Black Lives Matter era. For an independent filmmaker, a forum that big was too valuable to pass up. “It’s not enough to preach to the choir,” she says. “You have to speak to everybody.”
Prince-Bythewood, 47 and a California native, is one of only a few directors who makes films about flawed but empowered women of color, starting with her acclaimed feature debut, Love & Basketball, and more recently with Beyond the Lights. “I grew up an athlete, so the women in my world were strong and fierce and ambitious, and that was a good thing,” she says. “A lot of girls are taught the opposite: aggression is bad.”
In the new show, Justice Department investigator Ashe (Love & Basketball star Sanaa Lathan) and lawyer Preston (Stephan James) look into the shooting–but they soon learn that the police department seems to be covering up the death of a black teen murdered a few weeks earlier. Prince-Bythewood, who wrote the series with her husband Reggie Rock Bythewood, believed that focusing on two murders–one white, the other black–would allow them to show the different ways in which law enforcement and media treat victims based on their race. “We have two black boys, and these shootings affect us every time–we think of our kids,” she says. “We wanted to show a character audiences could empathize with.”
The writers and actors did extensive research, including meeting with Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot in Oakland, Calif., and Ray Kelly, the former New York City police commissioner who defended the controversial stop-and-frisk policy. Perhaps their most fruitful meeting was with Eric Holder, a former U.S. Attorney General and a sort of blueprint for the character of Preston. Holder spoke about the emotional and moral impact of being a black man who, for a long time, put away black men for a living. “He’s unafraid to address what was going on in the country racially,” says Prince-Bythewood.
For Ashe, Prince-Bythewood drew from stories of real policewomen, including a former L.A. cop who spent her first year on the job patrolling with an older white man who refused to speak to her because of her race and gender. Ashe also has anger-management issues and is fighting for the custody of her daughter–tropes more typical of male officers on shows like Law & Order: SVU and Luther.
Prince-Bythewood’s own tenacity helps her to thrive in Hollywood, but she still has to fight for her movies about black women to get made. “Otherwise, we remain invisible,” she says. Even once her movies hit theaters, they’re often marketed to a limited audience. When Beyond the Lights, a romantic drama about a recording artist who falls in love with a police officer, was released to widespread critical acclaim in 2014, she objected to Netflix’s categorizing it with other black films instead of with romances. “I want people of color to be in every genre: westerns, sci-fi, love stories. Why shouldn’t Beyond the Lights be marketed like The Notebook?” she says. “As an artist, you hope to create something everyone can identify with.”
Television has been quicker than film to give a more diverse array of protagonists screen time: Prince-Bythewood says making a movie with two black leads who have different views on the criminal justice system would have been more difficult. She credits writers like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes for paving the way. “Still, I feel like we’re always trying to prove ourselves,” she says of being a black, female creator.
Prince-Bythewood will continue to work on the small screen: she recently directed an episode of the upcoming Marvel series Cloak & Dagger. But for her next film project, she’s teaming up with famed feminist writer Roxane Gay to adapt Gay’s novel, An Untamed State. The two met when Transparent creator Jill Soloway reached out to Gay and asked her if she wanted to choose a film that had been influential in her life for a screening Soloway hosts. Gay picked Love & Basketball because it was one of the first films starring a character she could actually identify with. Now the two will be bringing more fearless, female leads to the screen together.