White Diversity

The Night Of has taken social media and critical circles by storm. The powerful crime drama takes a hard look at social issues, including Islamaphobia and how Muslim Americans are treated by the media and our justice system.

I am going to proceed with the understanding that readers are familiar with the show, and have already seen most if not all of it. So spoilers ahead.

My main problem with this show is that it seems to highlight a familiar problem in Hollywood, diversity as shown and told by White creators. We’ve all seen the dismal numbers for writers/directors, how most are still white men even after the uproar of Oscars So White and an ongoing ACLU investigation. The Night Of despite a well-intentioned show concerned with diversity is no exception. It it is written by two White men. The executive producers too are nearly all White men.

And it shows.

The show centers around the events that unfolded around Nasir Khan, and how he wound up in the wrong place, at the wrong time and is now charged with murder. Instead of Naz being our primary character, we are quickly introduced to his oddball lawyer, John Stone. It is he who overtakes Nasir as the main protagonist. While Nasir remains the one in a bind, the one we care about, the show focuses on this turmoil largely through the perspective of John Turturro’s character — not Riz Ahmed’s. It focuses on this small time lawyer who got the case of a lifetime, and will now try and save his co-star.

The character of John Stone feels a lot more well developed than Nasir Khan. That’s not too surprising considering the show was originally a vehicle for the late James Gandolfini. A pilot was even shot starring the actor portraying John Stone. He remains credited as executive producer. With that understanding, it’s fair to say this show was likely devised as a show about this lawyer and added in the Muslim arc to give the story a social conscious in post-9/11 New York City.

Instead of exploring the Muslim community, and Khan’s family, we are only given a superficial glance at it. Most of what we see in terms of Islamaphobia is reacted to by the White cast. While Nasir initially takes issue with the Black men and their racist joke in the pilot, White people step in the rest of the show. It is John Stone who speaks for the Khan family and Nasir, describing them as “American as baseball” when the prosecution says he could flee to Pakistan (a country Nasir never visited). It is the White female lawyer, who briefly hijacks the case from Stone who stands on the courthouse steps and doesn’t allow Mr. Khan to speak.

Just as soon as we seem to be getting into the Khan families internal struggle we cut away. Most of the time, we just see them silent, our White cast talking over them. When they are alone, we get a few plot-driven scenes, but none of true introspection. We never really see the Khan family digest what has happened in a way that feels truly revealing. They mostly just mope about throughout the episodes, letting the White cast interpret events for them.

I can’t help but imagine that if we had a muslim POV in the writers room, the Khan family and their diverse community would have had a more dynamic role. I am not faulting the White writers for this, it is a cultural blind spot. I am sure they wanted to portray this family struggling with their identity, but in their cultural blindspot they failed to let the story unfold in a way that truly explored the Muslim identity. That’s because it is an identity that they don’t really understand. They can’t understand it, no matter how well researched. So instead it was largely John Stone and others reacting for them. It was other characters taking us through a world that still treats Muslims and Middle Eastern Americans as second class citizens and perpetual suspects. The show is textbook “White Diversity,” a diverse show obviously and transparently written by White people.

I’ll still take White Diversity over no diversity on screen. However, sometimes it is not White people’s story to tell. This presumptive idea that diversity only happens before the camera is false (sorry Matt Damon). As writers we need to be mindful when another POV is necessary, and other times know when to back off in acknowledgement that another POV may be better. Otherwise, all we get are shows and films which lack a true cultural representation; we get a superficial analysis of a problem or theme which requires greater introspection. Sometimes, if not most times, that introspection is better provided by those who best understand the problems/themes at hand.

****

For those writers who want to write better depictions of people of color, please check out this post written by Asian American writer Mari Naomi.

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