The central image in Netflix series “Seven Seconds” is striking, iconic and, for showrunner Veena Sud, intimately familiar: the Statue of Liberty, with her back to New Jersey, stands in front of the Manhattan shoreline. Sud saw it every day as a single mom taking her son to the park in Jersey City’s Filippino neighborhood.
“Seven Seconds” is not only a worthy successor to Sud’s Seattle mystery procedural “The Killing,” which Netflix rescued when AMC let it go, but to David Simon’s influential “The Wire,” which explored the inner workings of Baltimore institutions. She only got one season to do it, which is why Netflix put “Seven Seconds” into Emmy contention as a Limited Series. (The category is weaker than usual this year, as opposed to the overcrowded Drama Series.) In television, getting canceled is a harsher reality than not getting continued or extended; it’s a rejection, and Emmy nominations tend to come with a perception of ongoing success, not rejection.
Nonetheless, “Seven Seconds” deserves credit as one of the best-written, -directed, and -acted series of the year. Was it ever likely to be one of the most popular? No. But Netflix was willing to take on Sud’s searing portrait of a community in which a teenage African-American boy is run off the road by a white cop (Beau Knapp) who leaves him to die in the snow in a pool of his own blood. The cop allows his fellow cops to cover up for him as a determined investigator (Michael Mosley) and assistant district attorney (British discovery Clare-Hope Ashitey) press closer to finding what actually happened.
“Netflix is open to dramas that don’t make things so easy,” said Sud. “It would have been very hard to set up at another network, if not impossible. Yes, I did get that feedback about how dark the show was when pitching. Other shows nail antlers to the corpses of women’s heads. That’s dark too.”
JoJo Whilden / Netflix
Sud adapted “Seven Seconds” from Yuriy Bykov’s “The Major,” a Russian action film about a man who hits a kid on the road, setting it in Jersey City with a Black Lives Matter storyline. “I was turning on the television and seeing on a nightly basis another shooting by a police officer by another black man — Michael Brown, Freddy Gray, Tamar Rice — ‘What the fuck is going on?’ I wanted to tell a story of police violence. I wanted not to pull any punches, to be as truthful as I can. And it was important for the story not to create false happy endings.”
The lead role, inspired by Paul Newman in “The Verdict” — a young lawyer who masks her stress with alcohol — was a bitch to cast, as it had been with “The Killing,” when Mireille Enos came in to read for the detective lead with the pilot director Patty Jenkins at the last moment. This time, with pilot director Gavin O’Connor in prep, after scores of tapes and auditions, Sud was watching “Children of Men” on TV and saw a young actress who said “fuck off” to Clive Owen. “Who is this woman?” she asked. “I needed a fighter, a woman who could show deep vulnerability and fragility and brokenness and be able to go all the way to the end of the spectrum and fight like hell.”
Ashitey pushes her troubled lawyer to the limits of likability. “I like flawed women,” said Sud. “There has to be a rebalance. There is a superwoman trope, of beauty and guts and she has it all, with her fucking hair done perfectly, she’s a good mom. She becomes a prison for us. It’s boring as shit. It makes me feel like shit about myself. In the same way Bryan Cranston and Tony Soprano got to be bad, I want women who are not that Madonna superhero beauty. I want women who act like me.”
JoJo Whilden / Netflix
At the center of “Seven Seconds” are the boy’s two grieving parents (Regina King and Russell Hornsby). Always in demand, “American Crime” Emmy-winner King wanted to take on the powerhouse role of the assistant D.A., but Sud was stubborn. “I wanted Regina to play the mom because Latrice Butler and her husband are the emotional access to the story, the crux of being able to get into and understand the cost of a child’s life. We needed to understand that through the family; we needed actors who were at the top of their game. Regina and Russell are gifted and would not hold back.”
That’s what King was afraid of, she said in a phone interview. “Because I do have a son. Veena Sud saw me as Latrice. As I look back on it, the thought of that being an experience was scary. I felt, ‘How am I going to honor or pay respect to parents who have children who have been murdered at the hands of someone else?’ For a parent to lose a child is devastating in itself, but to lose a child by murder is worse.”
Working with Sud, who is Filippino-Indian, was helpful to King, she said: “Just being a woman of color in America, because of our history, the conversations she and I can have and understand from a emotional place I wouldn’t have had.”
Cara Howe / Netflix
For her writers room, Sud usually hires about eight people with a majority people of color. “My writers rooms always have women, by choice, by design,” she said. “I look for the best writers who are capable of writing the female and male leads. Some of the best voices for Fish, the white guy from Jersey, were black and Latina.”
And she also fights for as many women directors as she can. “I find there’s still resistance, as we all know, to female directors,” she said. “It remains a big problem.”
Raised in Cincinnati, Sud studied directing at NYU, moved into working on “The Real World,” wrote a spec script for “Oz” that landed her into the Disney Writing Fellowship, and joined the “Cold Case” writers room before being promoted to showrunner. “With series television, I love how long characters get to live, how many journeys they get to go through, just the ensemble nature of it.” She describes showrunning as “three rivers constantly running into the same channel: I’m writing and prepping episodes to go into production and post starts the minute the first dailies come in. When all three things are happening, I don’t get a lot of sleep or see my family much.”
She always had ambitions for “Seven Seconds” continuing to unfold like “The Wire,” “as a portrait of a city, as a reflection of the country,” she said, “using the microcosm of Jersey City as a way to play out different hot button issues that are striking our hearts.” So she is disappointed that it won’t happen.
Next up: She’s stepped away from the television village to direct a movie, “Between Earth and Sky,” a psychological thriller due this fall for Blumhouse starring Enos and Peter Sarsgaard.