“Seven Seconds”: Netflix series explores how the system fails Black Americans
"Seven Seconds"

The problem of racism, and the failure of the justice system to protect Black lives in the United States, goes beyond instances of police brutality and cop acquittals. Numerous studies have established that racism is embedded within our system, and its roots run deep. Through the Black Lives Matter movement, and our current tumultuous political climate, a magnifying glass has been placed over the issue of race relations and African American oppression in America.

The new Netflix original television series Seven Seconds takes on these themes: the tragedy of Black death and the aftermath of turmoil in the struggle for some semblance of justice. It is a timely drama that explores various angles and roles to paint a picture of the tangled web of a system that often fails Black Americans.

The plot begins as Brenton Butler, a Black teenager from Jersey City, is accidentally hit by a white police officer, Peter Jablonski, in a hit-and-run. Jablonski calls his fellow police officers to the scene. The other officers assume Butler is dead and decide to cover up the accident. Their justification, led by officer Mike DiAngelo, is that Jablonski will be accused of racism and that they’ll have another “Ferguson” or “Baltimore” on their hands. From there the story unfolds, as a district attorney and a Jersey City detective team up to try to find justice for Butler. In the midst of this we follow the lives of Butler’s parents and how they deal with their grief, along with the point of view of the cops involved in the cover-up.

Seven Seconds is based on the Russian movie The Major, that has a similar plotline of systemic corruption. Seven Seconds adds on the aspect of race, which results in a unique story that goes beyond the idea of a few bad cops spearheading injustice, but rather the idea of the whole legal system playing a role in the difficulty of protecting Black lives. The series shares its focus on the larger system as a whole with additional attention to the interpersonal dynamics that color the story.

The human element and focus of the story drive the often times bleak narrative through its ten-episode season. If this were a regular paint-by-number crime procedural it probably wouldn’t be able to hold an audience’s attention, for dealing with the reality of injustice is not something on which most people want to spend their relaxation time in front of the television. Yet these character-driven plotlines make a compelling case for viewers to push through the series’s ten hours.

Brenton Butler’s presence, although not often on screen, casts a cloud over the narrative as the crime against him creates a wide ripple effect. In that way, he’s like Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and way too many other Black lives lost to police violence who haunt those connected to them and by extension all of us. The series doesn’t shy away from shining a light on the institutions that discriminate against Black people, sometimes out of laziness, other times out of indifference, but most certainly out of racism.

As showrunner Veena Sud explained in an interview with Vice regarding the series, “It’s an attempt to layer in the notion of the continual way in which lives are valued in America, and how that in and of itself, without saying so, directly constitutes the practice of racism. All too often, [racism] is seen as something that needs to appear like an action, word, or a blatant form of hatred or discrimination. What I’ve tried to show is that racism can exist due to a crime of omission, which speaks to the value of a Black life.”

Seven Seconds explores the power dynamics within our system and how they affect who actually is protected. We see this through Brenton’s parents, who are often left with more questions than answers. They are concerned with defending the character of their fallen son, even though he is the one who was wronged.

Moments where the series takes a deep look into the grief of Butler’s parents, and also that of the Black district attorney character, KJ Harper, in trying to reconcile the quest for justice under a system they know doesn’t value Black lives as much as white ones, is where the series really shines. These characters aren’t painted as perfect, or beyond the demons that plague the case. Rather they are shown to be grappling with finding some sort of silver lining in a most tragic situation. Another character that stands out is the Jersey City detective, Joe “Fish” Rinaldi, as the white cop assigned to the case. The banter and debates between KJ and Joe provide a way for the series to present opposing views on race and justice.

Where the show falters is the obvious need to create a gray area concerning the police officers involved in the cover-up. Of course it would be too easy to simply paint them as racist corrupt cops with no redeeming qualities, so the show goes the route of giving them stories and expanded characterization. This is tolerable for perhaps the first episode, but then at times takes away from the screen time of the much more compelling Butler family and KJ and Joe’s plotlines regarding justice for Brenton.

Overall, the series is emotionally jam packed, and dares the viewer to not turn away from the tragedy of Black youth lost. It tackles not only the legal system, but the economic and medical institutions that make it hard for working-class Black Americans, like the Brenton’s parents, to protect and provide for their son before his accident, and while trying to keep him alive in the hospital afterward. The series proves that just as the old saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child, it can also be the work of a system to doom one.

Brenton’s story, although told uniquely, is not unique in and of itself. Yet, it is one that needs to be told as long as this injustice continues to exist in our society. The series isn’t easy viewing, but it will indeed resonate with viewers. Perhaps it will make them think harder on the notion that justice may not be blind, but merely blind to Black pain.

Seven Seconds is now streaming on Netflix. The trailer can be found here.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.