Netflix’s Seven Seconds tackles one of America’s most controversial realities, as police corruption is front and center throughout the highly anticipated drama. U.K. actress Clare-Hope Ashitey stars as KJ Harper, an assistant prosecutor for Jersey City assigned to investigate the death of a young Black boy gone missing after a hit-and-run.
In this exclusive interview, Ashitey shares what drew her to the series, her experience working with the incomparable Regina King, her perception of American police brutality and why Seven Seconds is more than a just another TV show.
What drew you to this role?
First and foremost, the script was great. I just thought it was so well written and I love how layered the characters are. Second, it’s a really important and tragic reality in American society. With so much racial tension and issues between the police and Black and minority ethnic groups, there needs to be more in-depth conversations if we’re going to fix anything.
How was it working with Emmy-winning actress and director Regina King?
It was great! She’s such a fantastic person, and she’s really nice! That sounds so basic, but that’s actually a pretty underrated trait in our industry. Not a lot of people are nice, aside from the fact that she is an excellent actor.
To be able to go to work with someone you like and who likes you and that you can talk to and is so approachable is great! I think everyone really loved her and everyone learned a lot from her.
Upon taking the role, did you feel any pressure or fear leading a cast of such well-respected and established actors?
In the beginning, I was a little nervous, but it was such a nice group. Everyone was so down to earth and so lovely and so accommodating and so helpful. We were all on the same page of just wanting the project to be the best it could be. There were no egos. Everyone was willing to take the back seat when they needed to, and move to the front when they needed to. Everyone was willing to help at all times, and I think we all felt supported, which is lovely because again, it rarely happens that way in the industry.
As a Black-Brit, what was your perception of American police brutality and corruption before filming for Seven Seconds began?
We’ve gotten a lot of that news over the last few years. Black men, mostly, being shot by police and the correlation between police brutality and Black and other minority ethnic groups. So I was aware of how bad things were, but maybe not to the extent of someone who was living here.
It’s so hard to digest and comprehend, but not because relationships between Blacks and the police back home are perfect, by any means. There are still Black and Brown people all over who are falsely accused. You are more likely to be stopped and searched if you’re Black than if you’re White in England. But the relationship and the racial geography is very different. It wasn’t something that I understood, emotionally, until I was here because you feel it. You feel the tension when you’re here.
It’s not just about making a TV show or a headline here and there, it’s a reality for many people.
Since filming the series, has your perspective changed at all?
I have a greater understanding. Now, I understand how deep it goes, and how necessary shows like this are, and how important it is to keep going with the conversation that will hopefully spark some real change because something is wrong. There are a lot of people whose experience in their own community isn’t right.
Have you ever had a negative experience with police that you believe was racially motivated?
I can’t think of an experience I’ve had with police that I felt was based on race, which is one difference between England and the U.S. I know that it happens, but if you were to ask any African-American that question, if not themselves, they would know someone who had.
I think people have always had ambiguous relationships toward the police because of the position in society they occupy. But that anxiety and that animosity isn’t as strong in other places as it is in the U.S., partially because the police are armed here. They aren’t at home. An already racially charged situation is now weaponized, which, in my mind, is so dangerous and crazy and makes the situation so much worse.
What do you hope viewers will take away from Seven Seconds?
I hope that communities and families who’ve been through something similar will find validation. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to contribute to the economy and politics of a community where you don’t feel heard. I’m hoping there’s some validation in seeing their experience reflected on-screen, so they know they are seen and heard and that there are people willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them and have the conversation.
On the other hand, there are communities that aren’t very diverse and don’t interact with Black people or have antagonistic or hostile relationships with Black people. Hopefully, this brings about some empathy and more understanding. Something has to give in how people treat each other, and it can only come from having empathy for people who aren’t like you.
Seven Seconds debuts Friday, Feb. 23, on Netflix.
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Born and raised in Compton, California, Jessica Bennett began her career as an intern at The Oakland Post, and later, The Source Magazine. She went on to write for respected hip hop publications such as DJ Booth and Hip Hop DX before becoming the Urban Editor of pop culture website, Wetpaint.com. She joined Ebony as the Entertainment Editor August 2017. Bennett has interviewed such names as Vanessa Williams, Spike Lee, Tyra Banks, Forest Whitaker, Magic & Cookie Johnson and several others.