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What to Watch on Netflix if You Want to See Diversity on the Screen

by Eryn Danielle

I love Netflix. No, but seriously I do. It’s a safe haven. I’ve got hours and hours of television and film at my fingertips whenever I want to indulge. But, I’m also someone who likes the debate why the hell the film/TV industries in the United States have always been so… white. From the actors to the narratives to the directors and writers: film and TV have historically been about the white experience.

For many years, if there was a non-white character in a film or television show, it was for comedic purposes. Writers relied on stereotypes and tropes to showcase non-white actors and the results have always been limiting and glaringly untrue. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at characters like Long Duk Dong in The Breakfast Club or Mickey Rooney’s yellowface portrayal of “Mr. Yunioshi” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Both of these performances are cringe-worthy at least, and more importantly, are incredibly degrading to Asian-Americans.

Television and film are supposed to depict our realities, right? I believe that means showcasing characters of all races, genders, nationalities, sexual orientations, etc. as thought-out and well-developed characters, instead of relying on tactless stereotypes for laughs. Who we see on the screen needs to mirror the diverse world we live in.

While there has been a slight improvement within the last couple of years, the industry has a long way to go and it’s crucial that we begin to see diverse casts, directors, writers, producers, and film crews. Yes, this year’s Oscars had the most diverse group of nominees ever, but nearly none were recognized for their craft and artistry. So to bring more awareness to these TV shows and films with people of color as their leads, we rounded up a list of Netflix gems that are doing the hard work of changing the industry and providing people entertainment that reflects their realities. So, if your love for Netflix equals your love of diverse and inclusive media, then this one’s for you!

Film

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

First thing’s first… let’s talk about To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. For the romantically inclined, this story will make you feel young again and believe in love. Remember that feeling when you had your first love? Yeah. That wonderful feeling is encompassed in all ninety-nine minutes of this film. But really, how great is it to see an Asian-American woman be the lead of a rom-com/coming-of-age story? Lara Jean is the film’s protagonist and is played by Lana Condor, a Vietnamese-American actress. She’s the type of lead character that has a well-thought-out backstory, a completely developed personality, is full of her own unique quirks, and is able to explore relationships both romantically and platonically. You honestly can’t help but root for her. An added bonus is the strong cast of supporting characters: her sisters Kitty ad Margot, her best guy friend Josh Sanderson, and her fake-beau Peter Kavinsky. Thank goodness for complex characters that bring the story to life! (P.S. for all those literary fanatics out there, there is a book series, too!)

TV

On My Block

I didn’t expect to be challenged when watching this coming-of-age sitcom. I usually think of sitcoms as being mindless television to pass the time. On My Block completely proved me wrong. It stars four young teens, Monse, Jamal, Ruby, and Cesar, as they deal with the growing pains of adolescence, but within the context of a predominantly Latinx/African-American neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. While they grapple with the difficulties and awkwardness that are synonymous with the teenage experience (i.e. sex, friend breakups, puberty, etc), their experiences as young people of color allow there to be a refreshing and realistic twist on the classic sitcom genre, which has traditionally focused on telling the stories of young white teens. In traditional sitcoms, I never saw characters that looked like me. I rarely saw well-developed characters that did not come from upper-middle-class households, so it’s exciting to see kids who don’t have it all but still approach adolescence with much more wisdom and grit than I ever had. More importantly, most sitcoms don’t confront the reality of gun violence, poverty, and disenfranchisement that do affect our youth. It’s important to see young Black and Latinx kids fumbling through adolescence and grappling with first times, first loves, and friend drama, without diminishing their unique experiences. On My Block will make you laugh, check your privilege, and feel a lot more than you ever bargained for.

Jane the Virgin

Soo…I’m pretty sure Gina Rodriguez aka Jane the Virgin is my soulmate. This show is not only groundbreaking because of its discussions around religion, virginity, and sexuality, but I mean come on, an ambitious, hardworking Venezuelan-American woman who dreams of becoming a writer? Plus, the added bonus of a dope-ass Abuela, complex Mother/Daughter relationships, and an over-the-top father? Jane the Virgin surprised me, because I was truly skeptical at first. The cynic in me wanted to roll my eyes at the pregnant virgin narrative, but the show is so much more than that. It shows the nuances of relationships, both platonic and romantic, the importance of maintaining and strengthening familial bonds, and the realities of working-class Americans as they strive for success. First and foremost, Jane’s story is her own. Her relationship status and potential motherhood do not define her. The show’s brilliant writers and directors are intentional about the fact that Jane’s life, her virginity, and her right to choose whether or not to have a child are all in her hands.

Dear White People

From the brain of the genius director Justin Simien, Dear White People, named after the original film which premiered in 2014 starring Tessa Thompson, is a television series that documents the lives of young Black college students at a predominantly white university. This show is centered on topics of activism, self-care, identity as a POC in an overwhelmingly white community, relationships (both platonic and romantic), and the nuances and distinctions of the Black experience in the United States. My favorite element of the show is that it breaks down how identity, both our true identities and our perceived identities, shape our experiences, opportunities, relationships and healthy self-images. Dear White People’s two emotionally-charged, thought-provoking, yet hilariously enlightening, seasons are perfect for your next Saturday Netflix binge.

Comedy Specials

Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife

I love comedy as much as the next person, but when it comes to stand up, some comedians are a hit or miss for me. However, I say this without a shred of hesitation: I. Freaking. Love. Ali. Wong. If I’m one day married and a soon-to-be mother of two, I hope I’m as badass and unapologetic as she is. Honestly, Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife is so damn good, you don’t even need to watch her original Netflix special, Ali Wong: Baby Cobra, to fall in love with her (but you definitely should though!). Her brutally honest and empowering performance depicts her own unrealistic expectations of stay-at-home motherhood, her experience with all too real body changes, and her ultimate truth that women do not have to be defined by their status as wives and mothers. What’s incredibly cathartic about Ali Wong’s stand up is that she turns what is stressful, defeating, and anxiety-producing about motherhood into something that many can share, which to me, is what separates Ali Wong from the masses.

Documentary

What Happened Miss Simone

If you’re a documentary fanatic, you’ll enjoy diving into the enthralling life of Nina Simone, an American singer/songwriter known for her incomparable talent and contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. What Happened Miss Simone is an intimate look at Nina Simone rise to fame, as well as her move to Liberia during the violence of the Civil Rights Movement and her role as an activist. What makes the film more touching is that Nina Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, is the executive producer.

Honorable Mentions

And on the off chance that Netflix isn’t your jam, these shows are making waves in the film and tv industry and you can find them on HBO and FX.

Insecure

Issa. Rae. Is. Life. That is all. If you don’t know Issa Rae, she’s the writer, executive producer, and star of Insecure. Insecure is wildly raunchy and unapologetic. It follows the ups and downs of a young Black woman living in Los Angeles. Issa deals with career plateaus, dissatisfied relationships, economic roadblocks like gentrification and lack of resources, while still living her best life. One of the best parts of this show is that when characters are confronted with their flaws and mistakes. It’ll make you reevaluate your own shortcomings and take ownership of your life. If you’ve haven’t seen this comedic masterpiece, please do yourself a favor and purchase an HBO subscription, stat.

Atlanta

It’s a well-known fact that Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino can do no wrong; he’s multi-talented AF. When he’s not singing on the stage in front of hundreds of people, Donald Glover is writing, directing, and acting as the lead in Atlanta, that is — you guessed it— conveniently set in Atlanta, Georgia. The show follows the lives of two young Black men as they navigate ATL’s booming rap scene. The characters are balancing fraught family relationships, with the pressure to pursue their passions. The utter lack of BS and sugar-coating of how hard life can be is refreshing in this show, and I expected nothing less than greatness from Donald Glover. You can watch Atlanta  directly on fxnetworks.com.

Feature image via Netflix

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