Master of None, Boycott Oscar, and the limits and benefits of representation

Aziz image
(Image from Google)

Master of None, on paper, is a simple premise.

It’s a show about a guy who is is an actor (mostly known for commercials), and him coming to terms with what he actually wants his life. Like many of us in the twilight of our twenties, the story is familiar. After all, who hasn’t wondered, while standing in line at CVS for a prescription for painkillers for your suddenly aching back, “Wait, what am I doing with my life?” It’s universal.

What set the show apart was the fact that it starred Aziz Ansari, a South Asian American, and surprise, the jokes weren’t based on solely his ethnicity or quirky accents. Instead, what the viewer experienced, episode after episode, was a diverse cast of people, black, brown, and Asian, who were all young Americans living in NYC, trying out relationships, and figuring what to eat next. And because of this, the show was awarded a Critics’ Choice Award for best comedy this past weekend, cementing the rather obvious fact: white people aren’t the only ones with narratives to tell.

Ironically, this message hasn’t really spread as far as we’d like. Despite TV representing better how the U.S. is really like, with programming that includes Black-Ish and Fresh off The Boat, there is a lot left undone, especially in terms of the big-screen. Once again, not a single person of color has been nominated for any of the major awards on Oscar night. Major figures like Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith have said they’d boycott the Oscars, in an attempt to highlight Hollywood’s lack of diversity, to put it lightly. Others have joined and the problem has become a major point of discussion in the mainstream press, especially the fact that those who do vote for the nominations are overwhelming white, male, and old, and consequently, out of touch with the current generation and the modern era of art.

Yet, what boycott Oscars and show like Master of None have also done is provide a jumping-off point for the larger discussion to be had by POC, which is: does representation matter when we’re still living in an age of police brutality, and institutionalized racism. Basically, it is a debate of substantive versus what some would describe as symbolic, and certainly, it’s a discussion worth having and necessary moving forward.

By now, you should know what’s happened in Flint, Michigan. If not, here’s a quick summary: The city of Flint is suffering from a man-made crisis. There is no drinking water available for the residents. Most importantly, the drinking water they once relied had been contaminated due to decisions made by a “state-appointed emergency manager.” To save money, the way that water was delivered had been changed, and now, those living in Flint are left with water that’s “highly corrosive.” Again, it’s tragedy created by those in power, removed from the daily life of ordinary people in that area.

Furthermore, Flint itself would be described as a place hard-hit by de-industrialization (a.k.a. factories up and went). Most folks are working-class, and the majority are African-American. Because of these factors, some might say that there hasn’t been a huge enough outcry up until recently. That since the people are without political power and already living on the margins economically, that they have been ignored, and the crisis hasn’t been taken seriously.

With these facts in mind, it can be intuitive to say, “Who gives a crap about the Oscars while POC are dying?” After all, will Michael B. Jordan getting nominated for Creed cure the water in Flint? Will Aziz Ansari showing up on a late-night talk show to discuss diversity in entertainment stop the attacks on Sikh and Muslim Americans? Will any of this attention truly take into account those outside the lens?

The simple answer is, “It won’t,” and it’d be naive to think so.

But maybe the debate itself hasn’t been framed in the correct way.

Maybe, there is no binary we need to uphold.

I grew up in Queens, unfortunately during the era of Giuliani. Fortunately, I was too young and dumb to care and all I wanted to do was write stories and watch movies. My favorites then were Jurassic Park and anything Disney. I began to write my own material, inserting names like Arjun for the lead characters. This was subconscious by the way. I wasn’t  some angry-ass radical just yet. I still had a life. But I did realize as I grew up and we moved into the suburbs of New Jersey that many of the books I were reading and the shows I saw were dominated by white faces. There was never an Eureka moment. The truth simply settled into me, like smoke, and I was annoyed. And when I did find out material with people who looked like me, it was usually, someone playing a terrorist and yelling Allahu Akbar, or a taxi driver. Add to the fact that I was surrounded by other Desis, born and raised in the U.S., who wanted to become doctors, or engineers, made truly feel like I was the weird one. Funny thing is, it was a movie like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle that made me understand that no, the problem wasn’t me. It was the society I inhabited. The limits had been set by the invisible hand.

I’m not going to lie though and pretend that Harold and Kumar rescued me from oblivion. I was already becoming aware of race, class, and gender through experiences I and my friends had. But, to see Kal Penn play someone who was funny, aimless, and also, confident about himself (not to mention standing up to the racist cop), became a point-of-reference, a face I could sorta remember whenever I did feel out of place. Along with the tv show, Everybody Hates Chris, and the countless other artists I considered as influences, I felt anchored to the world, and to who I am: a nerdy ass South Asian-American who likes to speak out at protests, and make fart-jokes in his spare time (back in the day, I’d like to add).

Art and politics shouldn’t be placed on opposite ends. The best writers were the best thinkers. The best thinkers were the best advocates for social change. Case in point: James Baldwin.

Baldwin was a novelist, an essayist, and a bad-ass. He did produce a lot of stories, and one could’ve described him as just someone who liked to shed words like leaves. But that person would be an idiot. Baldwin, to me, represents the obviousness that solutions cannot be based on what a person writes down on paper, but surely, words on paper, or on a blog, or just words in general, can elicit emotions and sharp new ideas for perhaps, others to take a hold of and use.

As mentioned, Baldwin was prolific. His best work, in my eyes, is The Fire Next Time, which starts with a letter to his nephew, telling him about what it can mean to be a black man and contains perspectives on race in America. It wasn’t fictional, but yes, it was still sentences strewn together. But to this day, it is remembered as a quintessential work, that broke new ground for other writers of color. Most importantly, Baldwin is considered a hero for young people who believe in social justice and expressing yourself. He may not have been a Huey Newton in terms of actively standing up against the police, but he has influenced a generation in the same way. It was reading his work and hearing his speeches on YouTube that got me more involved in activism as well. That to me is a direct link.

Those who’d criticize the fact of boycotting Oscars while people of color suffer in the real world still have a valid point in terms of who we, as POC, want to impress with our work and art. What we must avoid, at all costs, is the White Gaze. The White Gaze is when people create work for white eyes to see. Which is a reality for many. As mentioned, I grew up feeling different, even from South Asian Americans. I was a Bengali-Indian-American, surrounded by what I knew was a distinctly Gujarati-American influenced version of a Desi identity produced for white audiences. I could joke about it but until the movie version of Namesake (centered around a Bengali-American family) was helpful to me.

So far, people of color have been rewarded in movies for playing butlers, and maids, and corrupt cops. It’s still important to honor those who broke through and gained recognition but we must remembered that the ultimate goal is not only have more access to the seats of power within entertainment but to be able to change the narratives entirely, to finally include stories that tell the whole breadth and nuance of who we are. This can only change if we demand that more POC are included in the nomination process. No one can deny that Hollywood has a name and influence behind it. We need those levers of power if we are to disseminate images of ourselves than are different from those in the past. In a capitalistic country, money sings, and so, us not going to the movies that only star white lead actors and actresses can and should make a difference. The demographics have changed and most of America, I believe, want to see POC and women up on the big screen, from all walks of life. So long as we keep ourselves in check and that we want to own the power, and not borrow it, art can advocate for change and make an impact in folks’ lives.

“Know whence you came,” Baldwin wrote, “If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.”

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