2016 has been a tumultuous and frightening year for minorities and race relations in the United States. Violence and tension are at an all-time high, while communication has broken down almost entirely. Nearly daily a new story comes to light; another minority the victim of sketchy-at-best circumstances and oftentimes deadly brutal force. The release of HBO’s miniseries The Night Of was timed far too perfectly, premiering just days after the recent slayings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, just one day apart from each other (only two of the 200-plus people killed by police since then) as well as Colin Kaepernick’s now-infamous protest during the National Anthem against the systematic oppression of black people.
The Night Of definitely has it’s fair share of flaws as a crime procedural; spending far too much time on unimportant matters and side plots with no payoff, then flying through the more critical and seminal parts of the story. For all of it’s shortcomings though, the miniseries did a phenomenal job of showcasing how the justice system is stacked against minorities, the ever-present and systematic racisms they face on a daily basis, and how their lives, personalities, and personal relationships are forever affected and altered as a result.
It should honestly go without saying that there will be *SPOILERS* of HBO’s The Night Of from this point forward, and you should stop reading right now if you wish to avoid them. But, I feel a lot better covering my ass, as well as my publisher’s, from your incessant whining for ruining the story. So, if you read on from here and haven’t watched the show yet, that’s on you.
Riding the success of the “Serial: Season 1” podcast, as well as Netflix’s Making a Murder, The Night Of tells the story of Nasir “Naz” Khan, a Pakistani-American college student from Jackson Heights, Queens, New York. The naive and hardworking Naz that we are initially introduced to, lives at home with his immigrant parents, as well as manages and tutors the basketball team at his school. When he’s invited by the players to a party in Manhattan and ditched by his car-wielding friend, Naz “borrows” his father’s cab and drives downtown to find the party himself. After getting lost, Naz inadvertently picks up a passenger, the beautiful, mysterious and disturbed Andrea Cornish, and the two eventually share a night of booze, drugs, and sex. Naz awakens sometime later in the kitchen, disoriented and confused. When he finally finds his bearings, Naz returns to the bedroom to say goodbye to Andrea, only to find her brutally stabbed and cut, with blood literally everywhere. Naz panics and flees the scene, having to break back into the house to retrieve his keys he’s seen by a witness across the street. From there, Naz gets pulled over for drunk driving, gets put in the back of the car of the officers called to respond to Andrea’s residence, then spends the next few hours at the crime scene and in booking at the precinct – all while none of the police knew he had been in the house just minutes before. Just when it looks like Naz is going to be released and somehow escape this nightmare, the police search him and find the supposed murder weapon, arresting and detaining him.
Over the course of the final seven episodes, The Night Of gives an in depth and realistic look at the American Judicial System and court process – from the viewpoint of the defendant, his family, the police, the prosecution, defense lawyers, the jury, and even the judge. Obviously in a story like this, race and class are inevitably heavily featured and focused upon. But the show and it’s creators aren’t trying to make a point or teach a lesson, rather their dedication to authenticity offers a sobering and accurate depiction of the anti-Muslim sentiment in 2014 New York City. Thankfully, The Night Of strayed from the current whitewashing of minority characters in Hollywood, opting for an authentic portrayal of the population of Rikers’ Island (and real US Prisons); predominantly and disproportionately Black and Hispanic, with whites being the obvious minority. At a time when the connection between race and crime is such a heated topic, The Night Of explores the effect of being charged with murder on a young Muslim man and his family. Instead of shying from the uncomfortable topic, the show accurately portrays the criminal justice system, including the clear racial bias. When the court refused to set bail for Naz, citing him as a flight risk despite his never having been to Pakistan and not even owning a passport, it’s hard not to draw parallels to real life instances like the bond and bail algorithm showing a clear racial bias; or even Brock Turner getting a six month sentence when guilty of rape, but an innocent black man getting five years for a similar offense.
From the opening scene, The Night Of sugar coats nothing, and tackles racial issues, phobias, and stereotypes head on; with Nazir’s mother being apprehensive of him attending a “black party.” Just a short time later while trying to rid his father’s cab of unwanted passengers, a police car rolls up to Naz and the officer calls him “Captain Baba.” As Andrea and Naz are walking from the cab to her house they pass two black men, one of which remarks “Ah look. Mustafa left his bombs home, ‘bout to get him some.” When Naz stops and confronts the man, he doubles down by responding “I said, did you leave your bombs at home, Mustafa?” When Naz declines to engage and goes inside, the man continues on relentlessly “What? What happened? You saw Homeland Security or something?” When the detective is interviewing witnesses, one is blatantly and openly biased, using slurs and racist terminology to describe Nas; while another witness goes out of his way to be politically correct, referring to him as “light-skinned black or Latino” or “could have been Caucasian, sure.” In the first episode alone, the show succeeds in showcasing what it’s like for a young minority in America, particularly one of Middle Eastern descent post 9/11.
Besides Naz’ direct treatment as a minority, the show also does a great job of showcasing how the arresting officer(s), prosecution, and even defense look to capitalize on his nationality to further their cause. Detective Dennis Box looked to take advantage of and exploit Naz’ naiveté to coerce the answers he needed for the DA to indict. Explaining the importance of details in the incident report to the officers first on scene, Box gestures to two black men sitting behind bars at the precinct and says “Either one of them goes in front of a jury he’s done for…But Nasir Khan, he doesn’t look like them. He looks like any other college kid. So the jury’s gonna wonder, could he really stick that knife into that girl? We have to fight that.” Box’s “guilty until proven innocent” and tunnel-vision to pin the crime on Naz blinded him to the true perpetrator (thankfully, not too late) and their interactions serve as a perfect example of what can happen to a minority unaware of their rights under police custody. Even when Box came to the conclusion that Naz was innocent and took the evidence to the DA, she decided that his race and the evidence was enough to still get a conviction – the truth be damned.
When Naz first meets lawyer Jack Stone, he’s asked about his citizenship, race, politics, and how he “feels about America.” Stone even quizzes Naz on his knowledge of potential baseball hall of famers. When Naz says he wants to tell the truth, that he didn’t do it, Stone responds by saying “The police come up with their story, we come up with ours. The jury gets to decide which they like best. I don’t want to be stuck with the truth.”
Alison Crowe, a high-profile defense attorney, visits Naz’ family and swoops in playing the “White Savior” role offering to defend Naz for free (obviously for the publicity in such a newsworthy case). When Crowe realizes she won’t be able to easily settle with a plea deal and avoid trial, she drops her offer to help for free and pawns the case off on a junior associate at an astronomical rate.
As the prosecution and splintered-defense teams work to build their cases, we see the devastating effect the arrest and trial have on Naz’ extremely cash and asset-poor family. We also get a front row seat to the horrific transformation Naz makes from soft-spoken nerd to harden criminal and drug addict under the tutelage of Rikers’ kingpin Freddy Knight. The show doesn’t shy away from showing what a young, minority, naive, first-time offender (whether innocent or not) must endure to ensure protection and safety within the prisons. Without gang affiliation or a previous knowledge of how the social system within a jail works, someone like Naz is a sitting duck for ridicule, attacks, or worse. In a relatively short time, Naz was stripped of his naiveté as he learned to adapt and survive. He quickly became addicted to Heroin, and even risked further charges and incarceration to mule drugs in for Freddy. In addition to the addiction and his internal transformation, Naz changed pretty drastically physically as well. He used his spare time to bulk up by doing pushups, got a few hard-to-miss prison tattoos, and shaved his head. By the time he was released, Naz’ family was completely broke from the ordeal, and outcasts in their Queens community. Naz was seen as a pariah because of his new physical appearance (and the case, obviously) and now hooked on a deadly drug. All of this is an all-too-real situation for first timers looking to survive the system. Whether guilty or later acquitted, whenever these people return to their families and neighborhoods, they’re met with a reality that they no longer fit into – with little-to-no help or rehabilitation.
Out of all the characters and viewpoints we’re introduced to, Andrea’s lack of screentime is the most glaring omission. Ms. Cornish’s murder is integral to the story, but she herself is another classic “dead girl in opening sequence” plot device. She’s nothing more than another beautiful woman who literally exists to die and drive the story. The show wonderfully demonstrates how insignificant the victim is to her own murder trial; the defense looks briefly into Andrea’s circumstances for clues that could explain what led to her death, while the prosecution avoided Andrea entirely in their manic attempt to find any dirt they could on Naz, so that it couldn’t poke holes in their airtight case. Andrea’s most (only) relevant moment in the prosecution’s testimony were the gruesome and graphic photos from the crime scene, which were used to demonize Naz more than to draw attention to Andrea herself.
But the way television and media treat women, especially those of color, as disposable, doesn’t go untouched by the show. When a black woman is found stabbed to death in Harlem, Detective Box sarcastically asks, “So where’s all the news trucks?”
Through their quest to tell an authentic and believable story, the creators and producers of The Night Of paint a soberingly accurate depiction of life for young minorities and their encounters with the police and justice system in America today. Naz’s multiple racially charged encounters, sadly too common experience in jail awaiting trial, and newly-found drug addiction are far too common for people of color across the nation. Hopefully more shows will follow in the footsteps of The Night Of and The Wire and bring more attention to the racial inequality and uphill battle minorities face in the US Justice System, but in an entertaining and non-preachy way.