How much is the life of a 15-year-old black kid worth? That’s the question posed by Veena Sud’s new Netflix series, Seven Seconds, and the answer is: Not very much, at least in the way that the criminal justice system values the lives of black kids. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and countless others remind us of that fact every single day, and black people sure as hell don’t need a lesson on it.
For black people, I would assume that Seven Seconds is just another depressing reminder of their reality. This is a series designed for NPR-loving, binge-watching liberal white people who say they believe in the Black Lives Matter movement, but may not completely understand it on a real, emotional, comprehensive level. Yes, we understand that black kids are killed by cops every day, and we also understand that those cops rarely face jail time. Seven Seconds takes us through an entire case, so that we can see it from every perspective: From the grieving parents to the cops investigating cops, to the prosecutors attempting to convict cops to the cops themselves who “only see blue” and who stand in solidarity to erect barriers to those convictions. Seven Seconds makes us see a dead black kid as someone who matters a great deal to a great many people, and then it reminds us that, to the people in power — the police, to the legal system — the black kid doesn’t matter at all.
It’s frustrating, and Seven Seconds painstakingly documents it over 10 hours. If you don’t regard our criminal justice system with suspicion by the end, you’re either willfully blind or racist.
Sud does a remarkable job, here, too, by designing a case that highlights all the issues. It sees an off-duty police officer, Peter Jablonski (Beau Knapp), talking on the phone to his pregnant wife early one morning while driving through a park when he inadvertently hits a 15-year-old black kid, Brenton Butler, who is riding his bike. It is clearly an accident. Jablonski calls some buddies on the police force out to the scene, however, and they conspire to cover up the crime, fearing that Jablonski’s career will be ruined once the media learns that a white cop hit a black kid on his bike. They cover up the scene and drive away. They make a calculated risk: That the police, the media, and the legal system won’t care enough about another dead black kid to properly investigate the hit-and-run. They leave, knowing that the kid is still alive.
He bleeds out, in the snow, for 12 hours.
What they don’t count on, however, is that Butler is not a gang member, although the police do their damndest throughout the series to paint him as one. They also don’t count on a grieving mother (Regina King, who is always amazing) who refuses to let her son’s murder lie, nor a young, black prosecutor (Clare-Hope Ashitey, also phenomenal here) exorcising some guilt, and a detective (Michael Mosley) who gives no fucks. And for a case like this to be successful, all three ingredients are necessary, and even then, the odds are against the prosecution.
The pilot episode is strong, just as Veena Sud’s pilot episode for The Killing was. But like The Killing, episodes two and three slow to a crawl. In fact, I nearly bailed — I was looking for any excuse I could find to give up. I love Regina King, but I couldn’t bear to watch 10 hours of the Grieving Mom Drama. The premise didn’t feel like it could sustain itself for 10 episodes (and these are not short episodes — they’re all pushing 60 minutes or longer) but stick with it. At the end of episode four, it grabbed me by the lapels and didn’t let go. There are so many layers to this case, and while it takes its sweet time to drive its point home, when it does, it drives it home hard.
What’s so fascinating here is the way that Sud pulls focus away from the “racist cop” and turns it on the “racist system.” This is not a bad apple. This is a bad apple cart. Jablonski doesn’t run over Butler because he’s black. He didn’t even know he’d hit the kid until after the fact. And Jablonski doesn’t abandon Butler in a ditch out of his own racism, necessarily, but because he gambles that the system won’t care enough about the life of a black kid to go after him. Meanwhile, his co-conspirators reason that, even if someone decided to go after Jablonski, they could protect their own. The investigative detective gets stonewalled by the entire police force. The prosecuting attorney knows that going after the cops will probably ruin her career. The district attorney, meanwhile, has to balance his own interests between gaining the black vote and keeping the cops — who essentially work for him — on his side.
Even putting aside the ridiculously high burden placed on prosecutors when trying to convict cops, it’s no wonder police officers always get away with it. The entire system is built to protect the police officers, who not only have the law on their side, as well as the rest of the police force but a powerful union that can afford the best attorneys. It’s David vs. Goliath every damn time. When it’s a white kid, facts and evidence matter. When it’s a black kid, facts and evidence are pesky little nuisances that need to be dealt with.
I’m not saying Seven Seconds is not without its faults. There are definitely some storylines that could have been excised. To illustrate the point of the series, neither did Sud need to play up the villainous characteristics of the conspiring cops so much — did they need to be racist, and corrupt, and working with gangs to line their own pockets. Sud also frustratingly vacillates on how to characterize Jablonski — is he temperamental or sympathetic? — but even that ultimately plays into the point she’s trying to make. The point is that regardless of whether Jablonski is a good father and husband, and regardless of whether he meant to run over Butler, he had so little regard for Butler’s life that he walked away when he never would’ve walked away if it were a white kid bleeding in the snow. But Sud doesn’t tell you that. She takes ten hours to show you that, to make you understand it, to make you feel the injustice, and to make you understand that “Black Lives Matter” is more than just a slogan. It’s a plea.