Visions of Success in The Get Down

On August 12th, Netflix premiered the first six episodes of its original series, The Get Down, which tells the story of a group of teenagers living in The Bronx in 1977, who participated and were witness to the creation of what became known as hip hop music. Ezekiel, an African American and Puerto Rican boy who lives with his aunt and her boyfriend after the death of his parents, is a great poet and storyteller, who has a passion for music and undying loyalty to his friends, his crew, The Get Down, consisting of DJ Shaolin Fantastic, and three MCs, Dizzy, Ra Ra and Boo Boo. He also wants to help address the poverty and violence that is prevalent in his community, and is given the opportunity to intern with Ed Koch’s mayoral campaign.

One of the main themes of the first six episodes is that Ezekiel feels pulled between two worlds, the Bronx community where he sometimes gets drawn into crime and violence, and a life outside of the Bronx, whether it’s the internship in Manhattan, or his English teacher, Ms. Green, encouraging him to apply to college. Ms. Green really believes in his talents as a writer and is committed to helping him succeed in life. While that is great, what is problematic is her vision of what success should look like for him; according to her, that is leaving the Bronx, his community and his friends, which she believes are holding him back. Ezekiel’s girlfriend, Mylene, also believes his friends are holding him back, and that he should be like her, and want to leave the Bronx behind for a life of luxury in Manhattan. His internship boss, Stanley Kelly, also “schools” him on what he needs to do in order to become successful, mainly turning his back on his friends and family.

What I find troubling is the idea that for poor kids, it’s their community, family and friends that hold them back from being a success, and not the policies and violence of the state that led to their community being ensconsed in poverty and violence. Ezekiel, and many poor kids in real life, including me when I was a teen, are told that in order to be somebody, we have to turn our backs on our community, internalizing the belief that the people in our community are crabs trying to pull us back down in the gutter. Papa Fuerte, Mylene’s uncle and the person who gets Ezekiel the internship, uses this “crabs in a barrel” analogy when explaining to Ezekiel why the internship is important for him. Why do we have to put others down in order to praise someone? We can praise a kid for their intelligence, talents, goals and dreams without setting them up as being “better” than the other kids in their community who are not doing as well.

Let’s redefine what success and “making it” look like. If it involves leaving your hometown and seeing the world great. If it involves staying in your community and being an example and a resource then that’s just as great.