The most compelling example of multiculturalism in the three episodes that I watched was the examples in On My Block. While the show did at times uphold some of the stereotypical representations of ethnic minorities (there are heavily tattooed Latino gang members throughout) these representations are there to draw attention to the very real problem of gang violence that exists within extremely poor neighborhoods that tend to have high minority populations. I got a very Boyz n the Hood vibe from this film, and found myself becoming extremely nervous about the group of academic misfits and hoping they wouldn’t meet the same fate as Ricky Baker from that film. The show takes an unflinching look at gang culture and watching Cesar try and at the end of the episode fail to escape his gangland roots was heart-wrenching. The show does suffer from a number of regressive stereotypes that may bring down its strong message to an extent; Olivia, played with passion by Ronni Hawk, ends up coming across mostly as the sassy latina stereotype that has been built up in the past by actresses like Jennifer Lopez and Rosie Perez. Jason Genao’s Ruby Martinez is attempting to fulfill the stereotype of the suave, sexual latino hearthrob like Ricky Martin or Antonio Banderas, although the show does an excellent job of subverting this stereotype by making him bunk with his grandmother (herself an extremely Catholic hispanic old lady stereotype, something we’ve seen before in this class in One Day at a Time), being forced to try on a gaudy pink dress, and generally making him an awkward dweeb.
The most divisive show by far is the Netflix Original Dear White People. I myself have mixed feelings on the show; as a white person I often felt like I was being attacked and preached at by the show. This was a double-edged sword; while the pointed and blunt nature of the commentary on race relations (and the powerfully uncomfortable scene of the blackface party) was a great tool for provoking thought and a change in perspective, the condescending tone the show often took (providing the same generalizing stereotypes of white people that black people have so long been subjected to) would occasionally make me feel defensive and therefore less receptive to the ideas they were putting forth. I find it very unlikely that the show would change the minds or worldviews of bigoted members. I try my very hardest to put myself in other people’s shoes and understand what they are going through, and even I was struggling to accept some of Sam’s more biting commentary; a bigot who has no desire to understand others will merely see it as an attack on their belief and dismiss it out-of-hand.
Justin Simien, the creator of the show, says in his interview on the KCRW podcast of The Business that it can be challenging for minorities to tell their stories because they face opposition from largely anonymous groups like the alt-right. He mentions that in a later episode Sam engages with an online troll and it causes her to lose her snarky commentary because she’s so disheartened. She so badly wants to beat him, but by engaging with him he’s already winning. Simien points out something similar happening in his own life where his show was being attacked by an alt-right member on the internet. He messaged the member, saying he was misrepresenting Simien’s show and the member said he knew that, but it was to appeal to his base. How are minority members supposed to effectively combat such a ridiculous movement? There is no person to talk to, Simien points out that most of them are either Russian bots or only identified by random images or stock photos of people, and they don’t even care about the content, just that it’s about a minority group.
Luke Cage on the other hand is far more subtle in its challenge of white people. The show is set in a predominantly black neighborhood in New York and according to a Salon.com article titled “‘Luke Cage’ and the racial empathy gap: ‘Why do they talk about being black all the time?’” only features two white characters who “recur often enough to appear in six or more episodes of the freshman season.” The lack of white people in the show sparked a lot of controversy on Twitter with many white users calling Luke Cage racist because of its lack of white representation, even though it was an accurate representation of the racial diversity in the area it took place in (Harlem is an overwhelmingly black neighborhood and it should shock no-one that black people are featured so heavily throughout). It is a powerful message to white people, who feel while watching Luke Cage the way many African-Americans feel while watching anything from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter. Luke Cage and its “commitment to blackness” face an uphill battle according to the Salon.com article; it points out that “while it’s easy to single out [Tim] Burton, whose movies are whiter than a three-day-old corpse, he’s one of many directors who almost never casts people of color. Woody Allen hasn’t featured a black man in a consequential part since Chiwetel Ejiofor in “Melinda and Melinda,” which was released in 2004. He’s directed 12 films since then. Filmmakers ranging from the Coen brothers to Wes Anderson have been called out for the lack of black faces in their expansive ensembles.” It also says that lines spoken by people of color in a major motion picture, the total time they speak usually adds up to less than a minute. It’s a serious problem in the industry and one that needs to be addressed. Time will tell if the cocky, in-your-face style of Dear White People or the more quiet but natural tone of Luke Cage will be more effective at changing both people’s minds and the conventions of the industry.