The latest W Magazine features a noir-themed photoshoot from Get Out director Jordan Peele, starring Janelle Monaé. It invoked a social media frenzy, with the idea of a black woman as a hardboiled detective subverting traditional noir tropes. But if you're aware of Netflix's forthcoming series Seven Seconds, which begins streaming Friday, then you know one of those women is already on her way to making a splash in pop culture.
Clare-Hope Ashitey stars as a prosecutor seeking justice for the parents of a young boy accidentally killed by a police officer. In a series that draws much of its tension from the current political climate, it's the inciting incident that sends the story into unexpected terrain. The boy, Brenton, is the son of Latrice and Isaiah Brenton (Regina King and Russell Hornsby), and he's hit on his bike by a distracted Officer Jablonski (Beau Knapp). Jablonski, a rookie cop, is cajoled by the rest of his narcotics squad into covering up the murder and framing someone else.
Enter Ashitey's KJ Harper, an alcoholic prosecutor who acts as the hardboiled detective in Seven Seconds, creator Veena Sud's latest and the follow-up to her series The Killing. Harper begins to suspect things are amiss in the case, as she's quite good at her job when she's not sabotaging herself, and the first episode ends with her examining the snowy crime scene, taking in the series' Jersey City setting and propelling us into a twisty melodrama.
The series has many echoes of The Killing, a drama known for never quite living up to its potential, but what it does manage to do well is keep us from wondering "whodunnit" and avoiding becoming wrapped up in a convoluted mystery. Sud's drama this time is much more self-assured and hops to its feet immediately. It's more engrossing being involved in the suspense rather than guessing what crazy turn might come next, as she's learned from her previous series.
Seven Seconds rips from the headlines as it eventually jumps into the drama of a white cop killing a black teenager and covering it up, but at times the series still zigs when you expect it to zag. Helpfully, it isn't bogged down in trying to send a message so much as it just tells a story. It's a bit reminiscent of Gina Prince-Bythewood's Shots Fired series from last year, but this is a much bleaker series than the Fox drama was.
In a time when a film like Black Panther is showing us different aspects of blackness and how black men and women can rise as heroes in stories that were previously reserved for white men, it's exciting to see Ashitey in the role of Harper. TV desperately needs more multi-layered representations of black women and it helps that she portrays an anti-hero who's ultimately out to do the right thing.
The juxtaposition of Ashitey's hard-drinking and messy prosecutor with King's churchgoing mother is a necessary representation of two different, fully developed black women on television. That’s exciting to see in a series that should be classified as a “prestige” drama. Will Seven Seconds get the recognition it deserves? It’s an addictive and engrossing series, but of course it also follows Sud's The Killing which, despite its fans, started out promisingly but never quite found its footing.
But Sud deserves reexamination and now is the perfect time. In an interview with The New York Times, she discusses how she was initially turned off from filmmaking by watching a Brian de Palma film, Body Double. "Having women subjected to that extreme violence and obvious hate made me feel like I didn’t belong and I should try something else," she said. It wasn't until she took a Spike Lee filmmaking Master Class years later that she was reinvigorated. “I remember thinking, ‘This is an example of what’s possible for someone like me," she said.
With an Indian father and a mother from the Philippines, Sud stands out in a sea of overwhelmingly white and male television showrunners. As she told the Times, “Saying ‘I’m not going to apologize for the choices I’ve made’ created such a furor over my uppityness, it was almost like I was being taught a lesson. I don’t think male showrunners’ audiences are encouraged to ‘Take out the pitchforks!’ and chase them down.” In an industry where women of color rarely get a chance to take a second stab at the art they love, witnessing Sud's return with Seven Seconds is galvanizing.