It is indisputably a season of #BlackExcellence, filled with superheroes, anti-heroes and black characters taking us to fantastic realms accessible only in the imagination or via the groundbreaking films Black Panther and the upcoming A Wrinkle in Time.
But when we leave the theaters, here we are, in the real world. A world where there are often still very harsh and unjust realities attached to being young, black and in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This is the crux of Netflix’s new crime drama Seven Seconds, a series that devolves into a corrupt labyrinth after the hit-and-run killing of a young black teenager by a white cop in New Jersey. To be clear: That’s not a spoiler. Those events happen within the first five minutes of the first episode, and what we’re left with is the aftermath, excellently acted by an ensemble cast that includes Fences’ Russell Hornsby and the always incredible Regina King.
But the breakout star in Seven Seconds is Clare-Hope Ashitey, as deeply troubled Assistant District Attorney K.J. Harper, a young woman grappling with her own demons as she tries to find the truth behind the blue wall of silence. The Glow Up spoke with Ashitey in anticipation of Seven Seconds’ debut on Netflix on Feb. 23. The British-Ghanaian actress (Fun fact: She also played Sara, the “one who got away,” in the first episode of last year’s Emmy-winning season of Master of None) told us that K.J.’s fallibility was one of her main attractions to the role:
She’s complicated and flawed and layered and nuanced—I think all of the characters are to varying degrees, actually. And that’s one of the things that drew me to it in the first place: that she was like a person, like we all are.
You know, we’re not one thing or another—it’s not one end of the spectrum or the other end of the spectrum. We all have different facets to us and personality traits, and we have our flaws and we have our upsides, and good days and bad days, and we make good decisions, we make poor decisions. And I think that really attracted me as a person, [to] try and to figure out what those levels were for her.
In K.J. we see a young, accomplished woman who never seems to feel that she measures up, gauging everything by her biggest mistakes, and punishing herself daily for her imperfections, even as she tries to redeem herself. It’s a relatable conundrum, if, at times, difficult to watch. Ashitey tell us:
I think K.J. specifically, watching her grow and change over the course of the show, is very interesting and, I think, definitely to me as, like, a person, quite inspiring because it can be easy to think of progress as linear. And often you see in TV shows where someone had a moment and it turns everything around, and then everything goes right for them, and they go up and up and up.
But watching K.J. felt—or playing K.J. felt—much more true to definitely my life, where you have a moment where you decide to do something, and then you start doing it, and then two days later you hit a setback, and then you go, “I don’t want to do this anymore because it’s too hard.”
And either you get over the obstacle yourself, or somebody drags you over it. And then you take two steps forward and another five back and you stumble a bit forwards. And watching someone progress in that quite painful way but still making some progress, I think it was definitely helpful to me because things can be very defeating, and it can be very easy to give in to what feels like failure.
Prior to Seven Seconds, Ashitey was perhaps best known for the BBC hit Doctor Foster and the 2006 dystopian thriller Children of Men, starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore. Breaking into the U.S. market with Seven Seconds isn’t something she takes lightly, especially as a British actor playing an African American:
There definitely are a lot more opportunities, and there’s a lot more work on this side of the pond, and that is attracting a lot of British actors, and I understand the [frustration] over here, African American and otherwise. Like, it’s a competitive industry, first and foremost, and nobody wants the pool to get any bigger. And I guess when also dealing with something like racial issues, I entirely understand people feeling ownership of their own cultural heritage. And when things are portrayed that affect them, I understand people feeling protective over that, and it’s a difficult issue to broach.
I wanted this job, and I think these issues are important, and I thought I could do a good job of it, and I care about these issues. And I think that makes me as good a candidate for this job as any other. And I think it’s difficult. I think we are entering pretty dangerous territory when we start drawing lines and boundaries on who is allowed to do what, because that works both ways.
But beyond earning the coveted role of K.J. Harper, Ashitey takes very seriously the issues explored in Seven Seconds, issues that elevate the discussion of police misconduct to entirely new levels, as well as our culpability and responsibility to one another:
The show as a whole, I think we’re trying to contribute to a conversation that needs to be had right now in America specifically, and in the world in general. ... Specifically looking at the African-American community, hopefully offering some validation to experiences that are real and that happen all the time and that have been happening for a very long time ... for a certain portion of the American community to feel like they’re seen and what’s happening to them is being seen and is being thought about by people is important.
And what was it like working with child star-turned-acting powerhouse Regina King?
She was great. She’s such a fantastic person. ... And quite aside from the fact that she’s excellent at her job and she is a wonderful actor, to be able to go to work and spend time outside of work with someone who is, like, fun and interesting and approachable, I mean, that’s what we all want. Everyone wants to spend time with people that they like and who like them, and I think those people on this production found that in Regina.
Although she is currently still based in her native London, Ashitey’s turn in the highly watchable Seven Seconds may very well cement her a place in the rotation of black actresses in Hollywood who still outnumber the roles readily available. But for now, she remains focused on the present and on what she’s created as K.J. Harper. When it comes to future roles, she remains confident that her instincts will be her best guide:
You know, for me, it’s very hard to pin down a dream job, because I’m very script-led, and there isn’t, like, a particular role I’d like to play. There are lots of people I’d love to work with, but first and foremost, there’s a certain feeling I think you get when you read a script and you think, “This is good,” or maybe, “It’s going to be great, and I’m going to really enjoy, like, playing this character and being this person.” So it’s anything that makes me feel like that.
The Glow Up tip: The first season of Seven Seconds premieres Feb. 23 for your bingeing pleasure.