Seven Seconds is not an easy show to watch—but you won’t be able to turn away from it. Straddling the line between gripping crime mystery and devastating family drama, it’s heartbreaking, infuriating and thought-provoking. That’s in part because of the push-pull between the show’s beautifully nuanced writing and acting and the intense topics tackled within it: race relations between law enforcement and the people they serve.
Set in Jersey City, New Jersey, the new Netflix original series (Season 1 is available to stream now) revolves around a tragic accident that causes the lives of several families to intersect when a white police officer accidentally hits and critically injures a Black teenager, Brenton Butler, with his car while off-duty. The horrific accident sets off a brutal domino effect in the community starting with an attempted police cover-up and culminating in a dramatic trial.
The story is layered with themes of racism, guilt, grief and addiction, and the cast is stacked with some of the big and small screen’s finest actors including two people known for their roles in racially charged dramas. Regina King, who starred most recently in the ABC series American Crime, and Russell Hornsby, who co-starred alongside Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the critically acclaimed 2016 film Fences, play Brenton’s bereaved parents, consumed not only by the loss of their son, but the revelation that he might have been part of a gang. Behind the scenes is series creator and executive producer, Canada’s Veena Sud, who was also the talent behind The Killing.
FLARE sat down with the breakout star of the new Netflix show, British actor Clare-Hope Ashitey (you might recognize her from another binge-worthy series, BBC’s Doctor Foster) who portrays KJ Harper, an assistant prosecutor assigned to the case. In the anthological series, Harper wrestles with both her own demons as a severe alcoholic and the impact of the case, not only on Brenton’s family, but for the Black community. Here, Ashitey talks about race relations in the United States, how she channeled the pain of addiction and the responsibility of representing an entire community in her multidimensional role. She also shows us how the new series will force you to examine your views.
Playing an addict meant both observing others and tapping into personal pain
In preparation for the role of a high-functioning young alcoholic struggling to manage—and hide—her addiction, Ashitey says she tried to learn as much as possible from others, but also tapped into her own experience. “I watched as much as I could. I went to a few AA meetings, listening to people talk about their experiences and their struggles,” she says. “But I think most of us can relate to struggling with something that we can’t control in ourselves, and that could be substance abuse, it could be emotional… There are lots of times when our willpower just kind of loses out, and we suffer as a result.”
Seven Seconds is hard to stomach because it’s a reflection of reality
When asked why she feels the series is significant right now, Ashitey says it’s because the show is a direct reflection of present-day reality. The show resonates with people “because we have to face up to awful things that are happening in our world and in our society,” she says. “The kind of issues the show deals with have been happening for a very long time,” she added when referring to racial injustices in the United States.
“Here in the U.S., the African-American community has suffered in this way really since the start of existing here, and that hasn’t changed very much,” Ashitey says. “I think what’s different about this moment is that a lot more eyes are on this issue and there’s a lot more momentum behind efforts to change it.”
Ashitey believes shows like Seven Seconds can help move the needle toward much-needed change. “The racial landscape in this country is really broken, and people suffer every day as a result of it,” she says. “It may not be suffering directly from violence, or suffering directly from police brutality, but looking at institutionalized racism in the judicial system, in education, in healthcare, in welfare provision—you can’t have sections of society forever that feel that way. Something has to give, and hopefully it will be a good thing where society starts to change, as opposed to a revolutionary civil war, which isn’t going to help anyone.”
One of the show’s strengths is you aren’t told how to feel about the characters
“I got this pilot script in the autumn of 2016, and I had a lot of scripts and I read a lot of pilot scripts, and it was one of the best I’d read,” she says. “It immediately pulled me in, and I was interested in the characters. One of the things that drew me in most was that while I was interested in the characters, I didn’t know how I felt about them. And I think that’s very rare, because often you’re just told how to feel about people off the bat. You’re told he’s a ‘good guy’ or he’s a ‘bad guy,'” which is something this series, with its complex and layered characters, does not do.
“I didn’t know how I felt about KJ,” Ashitey says, referring to her conflicted feelings about the character she portrays in the series, “and I didn’t know how I felt about any of the characters.” That sentiment mirrors how our feelings about people we meet IRL often evolve. “You meet people and you’re like ‘I don’t know how I feel about you’ and someone does something surprising that changes your mind. We’re interesting creatures; we’re nuanced, complicated and layered, and we make all sorts of choices,” she says, and those choices don’t necessarily dictate whether you’re a good or bad person.
The series forced the cast to examine their own existing points of view—and will do the same for viewers
Ashitey points to the show’s ability to make people consider viewpoints outside of their own echo chambers. “For most of us [in the cast], it challenged our views and challenged the instinct that many of us have to settle comfortably into our viewpoints. There’s so much to consume that it’s very easy to read a headline in the news outlets that you subscribe to that you maybe support and go ‘This is how I feel.'”
She also stresses that a takeaway from the series should be the importance of remembering the humans behind the headlines bombarding us daily. “Try to understand that behind every headline, there are individuals, families and communities. These people aren’t necessarily good or bad, right? And what we’re trying to do by telling the story from many different viewpoints is look at the individuals that are players in the situation, and understand what’s driving them, and hopefully that means that a wide range of audiences can find some empathy and attach to the story in some way, and find a way into the story.”