On “Seven Seconds” and Seeing Black Women’s Pain as Human
“Seven Seconds,” a new Netflix original, is the crime drama we need in America right now. At the end of ten-episode series, I, like the audience filled with mostly black and brown folks in the courtroom, sat on my couching still waiting and wondering whether Brenton Butler would ever get the justice he deserves. In the first twenty minutes of the series, the 15-year-old is mowed down on his bike by a distracted narcotics cop, Officer Jablonski (Beau Knapp), and then left to die a slow and painful death, in the dead of winter in Jersey City. I knew going into it that justice would most likely not be served for the black boy who’s name is repeated over and over again throughout the series. Like most of the killings of unarmed black and brown folks, the Netflix series was a haunting reminder of just how far the justice system will go to keep power structures intact to oppress black and brown people in America.
The series was created by Veena Sud (“The Killing”) and starred a dynamic cast of actors including Regina King, Russel Hornsby, Clare-Hope Ashitey and Michael Mosley. Like most of Sud’s previous work, she uses the pain that tortures her characters to create chemistry amongst them. This is most notably visible by two groups of people in the series—the relationship between the Assistant Prosecutor K.J. Harper (Ashitey), and Detective Fish (Mosley); and Latrice Butler (King) and Isaiah Butler (Hornsby). The crime/thriller drama delves deeply into the problems with our criminal justice system — beginning with the lack of emotion on the answering machine by the police officer notifying the Butler’s that something has happened to their son, the hospital receptionist who unkindly greets the couple and asks for their insurance card with no information or sympathy for the couple, to the manner in which Fish accuses Brenton Butler of being a part of a gang before digging into the investigation. Those first scenes of how the Butler’s are bombarded with the news that their son was the victim of a hit-and-run portray the carelessness of a system that’s not concerned with the mental health or well-being of a family in search of news for a loved one.
From there, “Seven Seconds” unfolds in a vivid and raw depiction the way a crime and thriller drama should on the perils of the criminal justice system. It’s the type of drama that makes you ponder important questions about American culture — who has the power, who’s life matters, will justice be served? You are enraged that the police, who have a duty to act for someone in need, leave Brenton Butler to die, and attempt to cover up his murder by framing another innocent person. You are floored when those same police officers leak the minor’s arrest record and the media proceeds to eviscerate him in the news cycle. You’re not surprised when you learn those same cops are participating in a local drug ring and profiting from it. You’re also not surprised by the homophobia displayed in the community and particularly by Isaiah Butler when he learns his son is gay.
But, what may surprise you is the raw emotion displayed by the two women—Latrice Butler and K.J. Harper—because of the discomfort you feel watching two black women who are not strong, graceful, or poised, as so many of the mothers we have seen on TV are while they talk about the violence that has ripped their sons or daughters from this world. We vividly see Latrice Butler, who is agonizing from the pain of the death of her child. We see her behaving irrationally by confronting the cop who killed her son, crying furiously in front of others, dismissing her husband and pastor when they confront her about her behavior, and asking for a gun to kill her son’s killer. She is not the steady black woman we are used to seeing on TV. She’s not poised, rational, or steady in her delivery. She’s a black mother, full or grief and rage, and that makes us uncomfortable because we are so used to seeing “strong, black women” in the aftermath of violence. And it’s wrong. It’s wrong for us to see Latrice as irrational or grief-stricken because we have made it wrong.
The strong black woman stereotype works against Latrice throughout “Seven Seconds,” because we expect her to be this way. This stereotype has been so ingrained in our anatomy, passed on generationally from woman to woman, that we expect all black women to have this durability when confronted by pain. We use the strong black woman stereotype so often that it has become a part of our spirit—we must be strong at work, at home, in front of our children, and in our communities. There is no instance in which black women have the leeway to not be strong. This stereotype has worked itself into the narrative of whether or not black women actually feel pain, and we have seen throughout history how this stereotype, coupled with racism and misogyny, has disproportionately alienated black women’s experiences in every facet of our culture.
We also see how this stereotype works against K.J. Harper. As the Assistant Prosector, she has risen to a level of power that should afford her opportunities to achieve justice in this system, but it doesn’t. Her past experiences and how she handles her own grief cripple her in a way that makes her unlikeable by her colleagues and viewers. She lets the grief she feels over the death of two children from a past case, her affair with the DA, and familial issues drown her. We want more from her because she’s a highly competent and intelligent prosecutor when she’s not self sabotaging, but we also know how important it is for her to succeed in this job as a black person and a woman because she represents an entire community of people. We make her our token and expect her to achieve justice for Brenton Butler because she’s black—and it’s wrong. It’s wrong because we know how the system works, and we still expect more from her.
Between Latrice and K.J. we get a full and thorough view of how working in the system and being dragged into the system by a violent act can take strength away from Black women.
The effects this stereotype has on our society have caused others, and ourselves, to make black women’s strength seem inhuman — and it’s entirely at odds with our survival. According to work and slavery culture, we’re the workhorses. We could bear our own children, and the very next day get up and work in the fields. According to rape culture, black women and girls are unrapeable. According to police and social workers, our children are never missing or in need. According to hospital workers, we are never in danger of dying or our pain is nonexistent. According to pop culture, we’re work obsessed, unmanageable, intimidating, and angry. Most importantly though — in the face of violence, discrimination, toxic work cultures, and lack of resources — our “strength” warrants that we never need help and that we can’t stand in front of people and show our full grief, fear, or rage because it doesn’t fit the strong black woman trope.
For Latrice and K.J. we need to do more than expect the women to be strong. Too often we see real black women—at protests, on TV, giving interviews—and we remark at their steadiness, their poise, their grace. But if your child is stolen from you as violently as Brenton Butler, is that what we should expect? Far too often, the answer is yes, and it shouldn’t be. We need to be comfortable with seeing women, particularly black women, as human, and not let the stereotype of “strong black women” negate their struggle, their rawness, and their fight for justice.