HBO’s summer mini-series is not your grandpa’s courtroom drama
Angela Feng - CONTRIBUTOR
A few drinks, ecstasy, a borrowed taxi and a mysterious woman – this is all Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed) remembers of a night that culminates in his arrest as the prime suspect in a murder investigation. The Night Of is HBO’s show of the summer: captivating, addictive and thought-provoking, but, unlike Netflix’s beloved summer favorite Stranger Things, not quite so fun.
The Night Of is based on Criminal Justice, a 2008 series that explored the inconsistencies and shortcomings of the British justice system through the unlikely murder case of Ben Coulter, played by the decidedly Caucasian Ben Whishaw. Creators Richard Price and Steve Zaillian explore similar themes in their HBO drama with one vital alteration: they tell their story through the eyes of a Pakistani-American.
Representation is perhaps The Night Of’s greatest strength. While other shows choose to explore largely racialized worlds through the eyes of white outsiders, Price and Zaillian commit to telling a different story – one of potentially greater interest to audiences simply because it offers a rarely seen perspective. Society’s flaws are illuminated through the lawyers’ flippant use of race, religion and social class to manipulate the public’s perception of Nasir, all while he sits helpless in prison. Nasir himself, a student living under the watchful eye of his immigrant parents, is a rare insight into a new generation of young adults caught between two cultures, whose actions that night might seem reasonable or even tame compared to those of his peers.
Nasir Khan is unlike any other Muslim character on television. He is flawed, complex and wholly relatable; the changes he goes through are necessary. This sheltered university student must survive in prison, and the show seeks to justify his every action. The development of his character is a reflection of the criminal justice system’s ability to transform the most harmless of prisoners – guilty or otherwise – into hardened criminals.
In 2013, over 2 million people were incarcerated in the United States, and a disproportionate amount of these people were visible minorities. The decision to make the main character a person of colour highlights the negative effects that imprisonment has on minority communities, an effect that would have been lost by simply recasting the character of Ben Coulter.
The success of The Night Of confirms the fact that successful programming and media can be headlined by people of colour, and the fact that this casting choice does not deter from the quality or the popularity of the series may allow creators to explore different perspectives. The statements made on the failings of various societal institutions are made possible by one very important truth: The Night Of is an exceptional 8 episodes of compelling storytelling.