The APAHM Project Day 7: Late Night
Updated: May 18, 2020
Film: Late Night
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Where to watch it: Amazon Prime Video
Why it made the list:
From comedian, feminist, and POC activist Mindy Kaling comes an enlightening and comedic look into the television business from the unique perspective of a non-white woman. Additionally, the film is directed by Asian-Canadian Nisha Ganatra and stars Emma Thompson, who was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actress - Comedy or Musical in 2019.
I ashamedly admit that I haven‘t seen any works that star Mindy Kaling as a major character. However, I do have a lot of respect for her and what she means to both the women and minority communities. Many people of color, myself included, turn to creating their own content when they feel like something is lacking in media. I’m not sure if that was Mindy’s intentions with ”Late Night,” but regardless, this is the first feature length project that she has written and produced and it didn’t disappoint.
Although I wasn’t rolling with laughter, the film tackles a lot of issues that you would expect from Kaling: diversity and feminism included. But what we really get out of this film is the concept of “The Token Asian.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, the Token Asian (or any other marginalized group) is someone who is added to a group solely for the purpose of making the group seem inclusive and diverse. Mindy’s character Molly takes a leap of faith and interviews to be a writer on Katherine Newberry’s late night talk show. Desperate to hire a woman writer in an effort to save her from being replaced, Katherine hires Molly, who has no writing and little comedy experience.
Why was Molly hired? She wasn’t qualified; she had no entertainment background. Molly was hired because she was a non-white woman. We see that the entire staff of Newberry’s show is white and male, in fact the men have even gotten used to using the women’s restroom due to the lack of female employees. Everyone acknowledges that Molly is a “diversity hire” and this fuels Molly to prove herself an asset.
Katherine Newberry’s writers room
Why is the being a Token a negative thing? Take it from one of the few Asian crew members on any project I’ve worked on, I definitely have a voice in the back of my head wondering why I was hired every once in a while. It’s hard not to. I even had someone say behind my back that I was only hired because I was Asian. It’s sometimes hard not to think that way, especially in the film industry which has been under fire for years for being white and male dominated (as seen by movements like #TimesUp and #OscarsSoWhite). There are now diversity programs at major network companies in an effort to find non-white, up and coming directors. It can cause a lot of self-doubt and question your self-worth. I definitely go through a period of imposter syndrome every time I start a gig. However, just as Molly did, you have to prove that you deserve to be here. Maybe the intentions behind how you got started is a little sketchy, but the goal is to make them thankful that they hired you in the end.
So let’s talk about a broader topic of how Hollywood uses Token Minorities. If you check out Hulu and Netflix’s new APAHM Sections on their apps, you notice that a lot of these shows and movies they picked feature one Asian person with no cultural backstory. They simply have an Asian actor as a lead or supporting character. And as much as I would love to get to the point where we can just cast people based on talent and not have them be in your face about their racial background, I do think that it is important to highlight their background instead of saying “let’s cast an Asian person for diversity.”
Here is where I differentiate diversity from representation. Let’s take “Ocean’s 8” for example. Applauded for its all-women heist crew, that featured females of all ages and races, Mindy and Awkwafina barely have any lines or screen time. This is an example of diversity. They’re in the movie to make it look like it was groundbreaking for casting non-white actresses. Now let’s think of “Late Night” which has one Indian woman who struggles with breaking through the bamboo ceiling in a white male dominated work environment. This is representation. This is something women and people of color can relate to and apply to their lives. Casting a minority for the sake of diversity is a way for studios to show they are making an effort in pushing POC’s on screen. However, until we begin hiring POC’s as writers, directors, or producers do we begin to see richer POC characters on the screen. (P.S. Constance Wu makes a great distinction between the two in this interview)
The movie ends with a flash forward, one year later, and the Katherine Newberry show is more successful than ever. We see that the crew is no longer all white. The team has diversified to include Indian, Eastern Asian, and African American men and women.
Lastly, let’s quickly talk about feminism because although this is a post for The APAHM Project, it’s also on my blog Creative AF (Creative Asian Female) so I feel it’s appropriate. Katherine is noted as being the only woman host for a late night talk show. This is revolutionary because, like we noted in the “Always Be My Maybe” post, women are often not associated with being funny. Like almost everything else, it was once a man’s world (also this is my shameless plug to tell you to watch “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”). This point is further proven when we see Katherine’s writers room. Later, it is discovered that Katherine had an affair with one of her writers and the headlines come out, slut-shaming Katherine and one even welcoming Katherine among those accused during the Time’s Up movement. This proves that women are also capable of things like harassment and affairs. I think this is important because we can’t generalize that women aren’t also capable of crime (if we are thinking in extreme cases) and that only men are capable of harassing people. If we are true feminists, it means we advocate for equality. If a woman commits the same crime as a man, she shouldn't receive any special treatment and should receive equal punishment as the man. It was a subtle, but important, detail that Kaling and Ganatra decided to include.
Does it deserve to stay on this list:
Perhaps my only big complaint about this film is that it stated it’s message a little too obviously (show not tell situation) but maybe it’s time we just outwardly proclaim these issues because it seems that people still aren’t hearing it. What we want isn’t that big of an ask: hire more women, hire more people of color. Make us well-rounded characters we can relate to. Kaling and Ganatra do all of these things in “Late Night” and as a result came up with a funny, relevant, and light-hearted movie.