The central question of Seven Seconds, Netflix’s new 10-part miniseries from Veena Sud (the creator of AMC and Netflix’s The Killing), is never who killed Brenton Butler, a black teenager in Jersey City. In the show’s opening minutes, viewers see Pete Jablonski (Beau Knapp), an off-duty police officer, hit something with his car while he’s rushing to the hospital to take care of his pregnant wife. The tragedy unspools one awful image at a time: the wheel of a bike, spinning; a boot thrown off by the force of impact; a red stain pooling across the white snow.
The underlying tension of the show, then, is whether justice will ever be served for Brenton’s death. Jablonski, horrified by what he’s done, calls his captain, Mike Diangelo (David Lyons), who quickly orchestrates a cover-up, calculating cynically that the optics of a white officer killing a black teen will end Jablonski’s career. It’s a heartless and transparently terrible decision that underlines the most urgent preoccupation of Seven Seconds—how communities take care of their own to the detriment of everything else. From the police force to street gangs, from the armed forces to faith groups to families, every character in the series is crippled to some extent by their fealty to the groups they hope will protect them.
In its strongest moments, Seven Seconds raises important and compelling questions about the fault lines in American society: who has power and who doesn’t, who’s heard and who isn’t, whose lives matter and whose lives don’t. Brenton, killed while riding an expensive BMX bike, is first written off by detectives as a gang member, with the implication being that his death carries less weight. The police force, meanwhile, immediately closes ranks around its members, and the district attorney, who’s running for office, is reluctant to anger a group whose endorsement means so much. It’s up to an assistant district attorney, K.J. Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey), and her reluctant assigned detective, Joe “Fish” Rinaldi (Michael Mosley) to ascertain what really happened, and to help Brenton’s riven family get the justice they deserve.
Like the overwhelming majority of Netflix dramas, Seven Seconds takes a long time to get going, so much so that it might test the patience of many viewers. The first four hours are largely spent freewheeling, setting up character archetypes and interpersonal relationships that could be intuited without so much emphasis. ADA Harper is the most frustrating lead, a professional and personal trainwreck haunted by a past failure who falls into pitiful puddles of gin in karaoke bars and often fails to show up at work at all (Homeland’s Carrie Mathison called and she wants her tired working-woman characterization back). But she’s the exception: Others benefit from more nuanced roles, with Mosley’s Rinaldi and Lyons’s Diangelo among the most compelling.
The MVP of the show, though, is Regina King as Brenton’s mother, Latrice. There are few finer actresses working today, and King’s recent portfolio of television performances on The Leftovers and American Crime has won her both praise and two Emmy Awards. As a character, Latrice is defined by her grief and her rage, constantly having to fight to awaken other people’s empathy for a dead child. King finds added texture, though, in portraying a woman unmoored from everything she’s ever believed in. In one of the most damning scenes, Latrice visits a lawyer who tells her that a civil suit—with a six-figure payout—is the closest to justice she’ll likely get. “I know you don’t care about the money, but this is how you make them pay,” he tells her. As her husband, Isaiah, Russell Hornsby is just as adept, struggling to make his own peace with his weaknesses as a father. Brenton’s uncle, Seth (Zackary Momoh), a returning veteran, is caught between his past lives in a gang and in the military, neither of which puts a particularly high premium on his life.
Seven Seconds traverses a broad cross-section of different American communities and groups, all of which seem to come into conflict with one another. It’s unflinching in its portrayal of a society where equal justice under law often means anything but. Brenton’s story is juxtaposed with that of Nadine (Nadia Alexander), a 15-year-old drug addict from a wealthy white family whose shoplifting offenses are overlooked while Brenton has a criminal record for a couple of joints. But Sud resists making things simple. She never defends the decisions her characters make, instead exploring the reasoning that gets them there, and the allegiances they feel.
The show plays out against the distant skyline of New York City, with the Statue of Liberty looming over the horizon on a handful of occasions. It’s a not-totally-subtle reminder of the gap between the ideals of American society and the reality. If Seven Seconds is sometimes clumsy and slow to start, shifting from legal drama to The Wire and back again, it gears up into something more reflective and more surprising. What does justice mean when people are so easily persuaded that it means nothing at all?