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Too often, the television and film industries offer meager portrayals of many groups of people and systematically leave others out.
For instance, according to a new report from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Hollywood continues to objectify female Asian American and Pacific Islander characters, as my CNN colleague Harmeet Kaur reported last week. AAPI characters don’t fare much better on television.
And in its ninth annual Studio Responsibility Index report released last month, the media advocacy organization GLAAD noted that, despite an increase in the racial diversity of LGBTQ characters in 2020 wide release films, transgender and nonbinary characters were absent.
But what do television and film get right on the representation front?
Powered at least partly by streaming and the diverse backgrounds of the people behind the camera, television and film even just this year have provided meaningful portrayals of groups that have long been treated as afterthoughts. These depictions don’t make up for otherwise lacking environments, but they do matter, and are worth attention.
Isabella B. Vosmikova/Netflix
‘Never Have I Ever’
Last year, when Season 1 of Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s “Never Have I Ever” debuted, my former CNN colleague Mitra Kalita pointed out the variety of ways that the series busts stereotypes of South Asian experiences.
Season 2 continues on that stereotype-shattering path.
The show still follows the teenage Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), her mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani). But the second season gives these characters even more dimension – makes them messier, more human.
Some of Devi’s plot points, for instance, include letting secrets slip, getting jealous and making up rumors. Put another way, as Devi navigates the pressures of her Indian American identity, she’s sometimes a brat.
Giving its characters many layers is precisely what “Never Have I Ever” is about.
“When we talk about racism and stereotypes, it’s not just the ability or the freedom to vote and to become doctors and have degrees and do successful things,” Harleen Singh, a professor of South Asian literature and women’s studies at Brandeis University, told NPR’s Deepa Shivaram. “It’s also to just be human beings who have errors, who have wants, who are contradictory. Pardon my French, but to f*** up as much as anybody else.”
The premise of “Rutherford Falls” – created by Ed Helms, Michael Schur and Sierra Teller Ornelas – is simple. Nathan Rutherford (Helms) and Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding) are lifelong best friends. But one day they find themselves at odds with each other when their made-up town wants to remove a statue that commemorates Nathan’s ancestor.
The show is about loyalty – not only between friends but also to one’s heritage.
Reagan is Native American, a member of the (fictional) Minishonka Nation, and Nathan’s mission to preserve the statue eventually puts him in conflict with one of the leaders of Reagan’s tribe.
Through this tension – mixed with comedic moments – “Rutherford Falls” explores a range of issues that rarely get any screen time.
“What I saw in Hollywood for a very long time was that they were just willing to look at the Indigenous person as a metaphor or as a foil for something else where White characters would learn something from us or they would come to their own emotional realization due to our presence in the story,” Michael Greyeyes, who plays the CEO of the Minishonka casino and is Plains Cree from the Muskeg Lake First Nation in Canada, told CNBC. “Or even worse, they would just extract from our cultures, from our stories, from our history and use it for whatever purposes that they needed.”
In the same article, Schmieding expanded on what “Rutherford Falls” means for greater Native American representation on television.
“This is a really exciting time for us and there’s room, there’s room for it and there’s an audience for it,” the Lakota Sioux actor said. ” ‘Rutherford Falls’ is like a nice little stepping stone into some even more nuanced, more engaging, exciting diverse Native and Indigenous content.”
While Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger’s “Love, Victor” is inspired by and takes place in the same universe as the groundbreaking 2018 film “Love, Simon,” it’s no discount version of its predecessor.
For one thing, “Love, Simon” focuses on an affluent White teenager’s struggle to come out to himself and his family. Meanwhile, “Love, Victor” explores these stresses through the experiences of the series’ title character, who’s Latino.
But the show stands out for another reason, too – for how it complicates the coming-out narrative.
When characters come out in film or on television, they tend to be met by one of two responses: effusive support or complete rejection. In the second season of “Love, Victor,” though, viewers are treated to something different, to something in the middle.
Victor Salazar (Michael Cimino) isn’t disowned by his mother Isabel (Ana Ortiz) when he tells her that he’s gay, but things between them change; Isabel doesn’t know how to react to her son’s homosexuality. Over the course of Season 2, the two work to return warmth and openness to a relationship that’s grown awkward and distant.
(The new show from Amazon Prime, Josefina Trotta’s “September Mornings,” also mines a queer dimension of the relationship between parent and child.)
It’s a dynamic that a number of queer viewers can probably identify with.
Eric Liebowitz/FX/Everett Collection
Created by Ryan Murphy, Steven Canals and Brad Falchuk, “Pose” was nothing short of a revelation when it debuted in 2018. With a beloved, critically acclaimed cast that includes Billy Porter as Pray Tell and Mj Rodriguez as Blanca Evangelista, the series charts New York City’s underground ball scene in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Last month, Rodriguez made history when she became the first out transgender woman to be nominated in the Outstanding Lead Actress category for her role in “Pose.” In fact, she became the first out transgender performer to earn a nomination in any lead acting category.
Part of what makes Season 3 of “Pose” notable is how movingly it pulls into focus the power of queer fellowship in the face of familial rejection.
In Episode 4, Pray Tell, who’s been diagnosed with AIDS-related lymphoma, visits his Bible-thumping family in Pittsburgh. More than anything, the journey is a reckoning – a way for Pray Tell to confront the world that’s long tormented him.
“Sometimes I think I wouldn’t even have this disease if it wasn’t for the church and how y’all treated me,” he says to his mother and aunts when they meet the news of his diagnosis with judgment.
In light of the pain that Pray Tell’s Christian family inflicts on him, The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis wrote in June that, in the third season of “Pose,” “the purest moments of fellowship are those that occur in secular venues, among people who have been neglected by the families and institutions who should have been protecting them.”
Indeed, like other recent pieces of television – including Russell T. Davies’ masterpiece “It’s a Sin” – “Pose” illuminates both the joy and the necessity of queer kinship.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’
Shaka King’s Oscar-nominated “Judas and the Black Messiah” offers a moving biographical portrait of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who in 1969 established the first Rainbow Coalition.
Later that year, Chicago police killed Hampton in a predawn raid.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the movie is the complexity it grants to its characters – and by extension to Black history.
(“Judas” was released by Warner Bros., which is a unit of CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia.)
When the Panthers appear in pop culture at all, they’re usually depicted as championing violence. But “Judas” scotches that narrative. The movie shows the Panthers doing things like holding school lessons for kids and providing breakfast to poor Black families.
“The Panthers didn’t advocate violence any more than a range of other activist groups – not only Black activist groups but also other kinds of social justice movements,” Jane Rhodes, the author of the 2007 book, “Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon,” told me in February. “What the Panthers did was borrow the rhetoric of radical movements around the world.”
In giving its characters nuance and rigor, “Judas” reframes a vital piece of US history for a 21st-century audience.