HBO finally offered some male nudity during the prestige drama, The Night Of, in an episode that centered on the male body. Though one plot point concerned a shortage of Viagra, episode five featured two scenes with nude, prone black men. Neither black man was a lead character, like Stone (John Turturro,) who was desperate to regain his erection.
The series obsesses with Stone’s feet, afflicted with eczema, and often wallows in the minutiae of the horrific condition. The latest episode reveled in all the ways male bodies can bleed, grunt, eat, shit and get and lose erections.
It was a strange choice to put penis shots in a scene where white characters, a D.A. and coroner, rehearse a courtroom lie that will convict Naz (Riz Ahmed,) the young Pakastani American at the center of all the drama.
In the more explicit of the two nude scenes, two white characters stand on either side of a black man, a naked corpse, prone on a table. In what seemed intended as dark comedy, the male coroner signals toward the dead man’s crotch. That’s where the female D.A. should place a key piece of evidence—so they can better examine it.
The dead man’s flaccid penis shares the frame with a photo of Naz’s cut hand. We know he sliced it on a broken window fleeing the crime scene, but the D.A. wants the cut to have occurred during the series’ central murder.
Art School: SVU
The Night Of premiered in July to wide acclaim, billed as a moody depiction of the justice system. It more so resembles Special Victims Unit if produced by people who watch a lot of art films.
The first episode presented the brutal stabbing of your average manic pixie dream girl. She hops into the cab the innocent Naz stole from his dad. He wanted to drive into the big city to go to a party with “girls.” Though he’s some kind of math tutor, Naz can’t manage a drive to Manhattan and is spellbound when the siren Andrea hops in his car. She is the classic femme fatale from noir, the kind of woman who weakens the will of men. She is herself desperate for sex and violence. The kind of woman who exists only in the cinema. (Note to mesmeriz-able men: a mysterious minx will never invite you home for sex, drugs, and knife play. Not gonna happen.)
Soon, Naz awakens from a drug-induced slumber to find the pixie stabbed to death, awash in blood. And so goes our plot: What exactly happened?
By episode five, the series is less a police procedural and more so a play-by-play about how our innocent brown-skinned hero goes from college nerd to hardened criminal. The takeaway seems to be that he was a criminal all along. Already untrustworthy. Brimming with latent rage. The show takes its audience—hungry for respectable drama—into the mythic Rikers prison, which it presents as a Hogwarts for felons.
Surely, there are white lawbreakers, but if so, they do not figure into the wizarding here, where black men light beds on fire and dream up ways to torture Naz. He is taken under the wing of Freddie (Michael K. Williams of The Wire,) who exists as the “Jabba” of the prison, a kingpin who offers “protection” and feasts on Happy Meals. With his dark eyes, signature scar, and hard stare he seems the ideal black stereotype to unleash the dark side of Naz.
Andrea (the dead dream girl) is also a retrograde stereotype (killed as a “punishment” for sexual desire like all the prostitutes and beauty queens, the favored victims of serial killers in horror films and police shows).
The black strawman on HBO
But the series is most tone-deaf when it comes to its representation of black men. Except for Stone’s teenage son, they are depicted as the most regressive of clichés. It is disheartening when a statistic on the disproportionate number of incarcerated black men comes to stand in for “reality” on television.
Yes, black men are in prison, but check out the ways HBO presents them.
Consider its depiction of these minor characters:
- The brute who beat a weeping sick man in the first episode: a black man.
- The guy who took revenge on Naz (for an unrelated crime) with a hot baby oil concoction: a black man.
- The dudes who burn Naz’s bed and give him the ol’ pirate gesture, a finger across the throat: black guys.
- Naz’s co-drug-runner: a black guy.
- The corrupt guard who works for Freddie: a black guy.
- The guy who gets severely beaten while nude on a shower floor: a black guy who moans and grunts with notable verve throughout the brutality.
- The two men who watch the crime: black guys.
And the black men outside of prison:
- The basketball players (what a cliché) who invite Naz to the city party and thus, “cause” his problems: black guys.
- The hapless and infantilized witness, Trevor: a black guy. (Trevor also gets cast as the overt racist in the show, given lines about “towelheads” and “A-rabs,” and duly corrected by white characters.)
- The latest suspect, the drug dealer Duane who happened to stare down Andrea and Naz with an evil, motiveless gaze in episode one: a black guy.
- The man who provides HBO with notable full frontal: a black guy.
All these black men, even Freddie, are tangential to the primary plot and to the main characters, Naz and Stone—to them add white guy, Detective Box (Bill Hemp,) of course, about to retire. These are the male leads. Why surround them with black criminality? Why can’t their story be told without fixating on the bodies of black men, mostly extras, who populate the background, who make up its noise?
Nudity and its deeper meaning (and the myth of masculinity)
Game of Thrones, first famous for the nudity of its extras, wenches and prostitutes, has also presented its lead actresses nude. Lena Heady used a body double during her “walk of shame,” and the Mother of Dragons, Emilia Clarke, stood nude and proud once her clothes burned away during the annihilation of Doth Raki—both scenes arguably integral to plot machinations.
So why give the penis scene (bound to draw attention) to a dead black guy? Especially in an episode where Stone is first flaccid, but covered (in bed with his black prostitute/girlfriend who previously did a nude scene?) Why do we see Stone clutching his Viagra-induced erection, safely beneath pants, but not get the naked view of it? Either of these nude shots (body double or not) could have been plot-motivated and frankly, of great interest.
Why feature the penis of a black guy’s corpse? That doesn’t feel vital, necessary or edgy. It just feels racist. And it’s not subversive.
It’s just objectification. As when in the same scene, the corpse gets a needle to the eye, then gets punctured by a large syringe that draws a vial of black blood. No less in an episode titled “The Season of the Witch,” or what the pharmacist blames on the Viagra drought. Another myth about masculinity.
The Night Of purports to examine race, to depict the complexities of the Pakistani American experience. But in doing so, it continues to raise up white characters, depicting them with respect and prominence. All these black guys are just set decoration in stories about other people. Is the issue that Box and Stone seem less important without their demeaned black counterparts?
When Naz descends into brutality, it’s because black guys lead him there. Duane better be a decoy. He better not be some random black guy on the street who is so intrinsically evil he will circle back, enter the door you left open for your cat, and stab you 22 times.
That’s too close to the racist myths about black male virility, many invented to control slaves, perpetuated by white power and codified in popular cinema.
These myths: that black men are brutes, criminals, louts, liars, dummies, and deviants. That better not be what you’re up to here, HBO.
The killer better be the white stepdad—or all you’re doing is circulating racist clichés. There are stories about black men that don’t involve prison or drugs or require supporting roles. Wake up.
Photo: HBO/Getty Images