A Pakistani-American on “The Night Of”
Discussed: Hollywood ‘Ethnic Casting’, White Saviors, the Value of Muslims, System of Mass Incarceration
So let’s get a few things out of the way: I’m Pakistani-American and culturally Muslim, and the earlier part of my professional career was spent toiling away in Hollywood studios, attempting to make a difference with how people of color are represented in film and television. I disclose this information as an explainer, and forewarning, that I was deeply invested in The Night Of, constantly texting my fellow Pakistani fans of the show emoji prayer hands before each episode, as we collectively hoped that our people and Muslims would fare well on the show.
The Night Of is a show created by two white men, Steve Zaillian and Richard Price. Zaillian is best known for adapting Schindler’s List, Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, and Moneyball, and Price is the author/screenwriter of Clockers, Freedomland, and also boasts writing credits for episodes of The Wire. Perhaps to capitalize on the rabid popularity of the NPR podcast Serial, the central figure of this crime procedural is a Pakistani-American young man arrested for murder, and the intended core audience, based on the screen time dedicated to empathizing with John Turturro’s character’s psoriasis, has to be white people.
This distinction is important because if Pakistani-Americans like myself want to enjoy this show (which I very much did), it must take into account the audience’s learning curve, and their inherent bias while on this curve. While I know the cultural nuances of certain South Asian and Islamic culture, and as a resident of New York City, the distinctions of five boroughs, I have to assume that a majority of the show’s audience does not and therefore must receive nuggets of cultural competency here and there. As someone personally affected by the “truths” presented on The Night Of, I was relieved overall, but of course must take issue with a few things.
Hollywood “Ethnic” Casting for Dummies
Naz’ Pakistani father is played by Iranian actor, Peyman Mooadi, who doesn’t even attempt to morph his Iranian accent into a Pakistani one. While this could have been much worse, this does represent yet another case of Hollywood ethnic casting in which South Asians = Iranians = Arabs. Thankfully Riz Ahmed is famous enough (and happens to be Pakistani and Muslim) to be cast as Naz, Indian actress Poorna Jagannathan plays his mother, and the Indian lawyer Chandra is played by Sri Lankan actress Amara Karan, so points there for casting South Asians as South Asians. Yes, we could say Mrs. Khan and Chandra are products of Memoirs of a Geisha style casting, but let’s just chill on that for now.
Lack of Solidarity of the Muslim Community
While this is arguably a subjective and qualitative aspect, I took considerable issue with how the Muslim community of New York City, and of Jackson Heights in particular, was portrayed as not rallying behind the Khan family. Mr. Khan’s cab partners eventually turn their back on him, pressuring him to sell his share for much less than what it’s worth by threatening to sue Naz for car theft. Mrs. Khan discovers that she was called into an interview only out of gawker’s intrigue. Mr. Khan and Naz’s brother are shit-talked to by a niqab-wearing woman in their neighborhood as they pass by hate-crime graffiti directed towards Muslims. Sure these things could maybe happen, but there also exists a robust South Asian and Muslim activist community in Jackson Heights that would have entered the fray, with particular regard to how Muslims are treated by the NYPD. Borough-wide, New Yorker Muslims are an especially united front, accustomed to defending civil liberties and combatting Islamophobia.
Where have all the Muslim lawyers gone?
In a related critique, especially given the framing of the case around Naz’s religious background, apparently there are no Muslim public interest lawyers in all of New York that would have ran to Naz’s defense. Obviously, there are countless, but for the purposes of character dynamics and engaging that intended audience, we “need” Jack Stone. Stone, while funny, charming and well intentioned, serves as the stock white savior, albeit closer to a Bernie Sanders than let’s say a Sean Penn.
Sure, it’s super cute that he saves the victim’s cat — but to parallel the cat’s fate with Naz’s, and then on top of that to connect Stone’s client base with an ASPCA commercial showcasing caged animals needing rescuing, felt unsettling to say the least.
As a totally surprising and unwarranted story line, the writers do critique the concept of the white savior, presenting one of the worst iterations in order to do so, hotshot media-baiting lawyer Alison Crowe. She uses Chandra as a prop to gain the Khan’s trust in order to steal the case from Stone, and later scolds Mr. Khan to keep quiet in front of the cameras, refusing to give him a chance to speak publicly. Crowe isn’t propelled by a desire to seek truth and justice — she only seeks to raise her profile by representing a controversial client. Naz seems to sense her real intentions from the start. After Chandra offers that key piece of advice, he doesn’t cooperate with Crowe’s plan, refusing the plea deal, and Crowe storms out much like she would if a coffee shop ran out of almond milk.
The Night Of is a portrayal of how race, power, and privilege operate in the criminal justice system. For 90% of the show, there were ZERO attempts by Sgt. Box to actually do his job and conduct a thorough investigation. While the evidence easily points to Naz, there was never a clear motive, however that never swayed the lead detective to try and find one. Because on top of all the physical evidence spinning around Naz, he’s a Muslim, and being Muslim is never a good thing. Being Muslim is a motive.
Box’s character development somewhat provides a reasoning for his shitty work ethic: he’s near retirement, and while his right-shoulder-angel may be passive-aggressively writing him sticky notes to check other leads, his left-shoulder-mediocre-white-man is calmly ripping those sticky notes up and gently cooing to him that there’s no consequences. Nicely threaded through his arc are the mentions of playing golf after retirement, the official bogeyman of irrelevance, and in the last frame of episode 7, we know he’s going to get off his ass and actually do his job.
Meanwhile, Stone and Chandra have been doing Box’s job by uncovering possible leads and motives for the girl’s killer. In an example of people of color working twice as hard for half as much, Chandra schools Box during the trial by revealing major gaps in his investigation, but instead of the bombastic reaction it should’ve gotten from the courtroom and the admission of ineptitude from Box, he’s able to wiggle out of it with a condescending smirk and a lame excuse.
The show’s most telling scene, and which brilliantly underscores its critique of the criminal justice system, happens in episode 5 “The Season of the Witch” when Helen the D.A. visits the medical examiner. She meets with him under the ruse of investigating if Naz’s hand wound could have happened due to a knife slipping while he was allegedly stabbing the victim. As the scene progresses, it’s abundantly clear she’s not inquiring, but telling him that is what she needs him to say on the stand, even going so far to direct how he says it. This conversation all takes place while the medical examiner is performing an autopsy on a Black male, collecting and cataloguing bodily fluids for analysis. At one point, he casually places the D.A. file on Naz on this Black man, and we see an overhead shot that displays the man’s penis. Whether or not this was a way for the episode’s director to remind us “it’s not TV, it’s HBO” and they have license to full frontal it up, it served as a stark visual critique of White people’s gaze and attitudes towards Black men in the criminal justice system. By showing his penis, it did nothing to move the plot forward, and in this gratuitous nature, it reduces the Black man further into stereotype — my hope is that the intention was to further throw shade at the D.A., the medical examiner, and law enforcement apparatus as a whole. This scene is about how operators of the system, mostly White, are so desensitized that they no longer (or never did) their job with moral fortitude, but rather with a bureaucratic need to process bodies of color as expediently as possible.
As Naz navigates life in Rikers, these cyclical effects of the criminal justice system on people of color are clearly evident as the majority of the incarcerated depicted on the show are mostly Black and Latino. Michael Kenneth Williams plays Freddy, a former boxer and current Riker’s royalty, who takes Naz under his wing because Naz “smells like innocence.”
There’s a lot loaded into this relationship. Take into account that Freddy was sparked by Naz’ level of education, impressed that he had read classic novels, which being standard to the American canon, were most likely read due to an AP English class — a privilege likely not part of Freddy’s experience. Freddy repeatedly compares Naz to the rest of the inmates, again mostly Black and Latino, elevating Naz by complimenting his intellect, his alleged purity, and even praising his “true-born” Islam over the Nation of Islam converts. This dynamic between Freddy and Naz plays with what Vijay Prashad posits in The Karma of Brown Folk — South Asians, members of the model minority, are deployed as a “weapon in the war against Black America.” Naz is not supposed to be in prison. It was a freak set of occurrences that landed him behind bars. But Freddy is supposed to be locked up. The system of mass incarceration is designed to ensure it. He is the problem, while Naz is a solution. However, because these two meet in Rikers, the lines between problem and solution start to blur as Naz must learn to survive, and can only do so with Freddy’s protection.
Though perhaps that line was already blurred because Naz is a Muslim, and America still wrestles with how to calculate our value — well, maybe only if we join the troops, die in a war, and our parents are used as political bait.