*First published by Wear Your Voice Magazine, September 2, 2016.*
HBO’s The Night Of gives Naz — and the rest of us — an education in reasonable doubt, presumed guilt, and a certain kind of brownness
[Content warning: sexual assault, spoilers for HBO’s The Night Of]
There’s nothing like the murder of a young, wealthy, white woman in her fancy Manhattan brownstone to grab the media’s attention and hold it, especially when her alleged killer is a Pakistani-American and Muslim to boot.
Through a series of unfortunate events in HBO’s The Night Of, Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) finds himself fleeing the crime scene with pockets full of incriminating evidence. From the perspective of law enforcement there is no doubt he’s the murderer of Andrea Cornish (Sofia Black-D’Elia), so much so that the police don’t even explore other, much more likely suspects: her violent stepfather who used to beat her mother, her boyfriend/business manager who was fond of battering prostitutes, an ex-con with a history of rape and knife-fueled crime and a woman-hating undertaker with his own history of domestic violence. They don’t even properly assess the crime scene.
Down into the rabbit hole of the American judicial and penitentiary systems — and court of public opinion — an innocent Naz goes, in a tragic confluence of circumstantial evidence and the most incriminating factors of all: His brown skin, Pakistani heritage and Muslim religion.
Naz’s own Pakistani heritage ends up playing several different and contradictory roles both against him and in his favor through the course of The Night Of’s narrative. Law enforcement considers his Pakistani-ness and religion indicators of presumed guilt, and so do some of the witnesses against him who are even people of color themselves, just not Naz’s kind of brown. Being a persecuted Pakistani-American Muslim, his case rises to the attention of one of New York’s most prestigious defense attorneys, who even offers to take on the case pro bono. The prosecution uses Naz’s heritage to show his violent tendencies: After 9/11 Naz committed two assaults against people who had been bullying him at school, and the district attorney tries to demonstrate a pattern with regards to the murder trial. And when in prison, Naz’s conservative South Asian upbringing, lack of street sense, and “smell of innocence” ends up being what saves him from the usual horrible fates when a seasoned inmate takes him under his wing. His prison mentor Freddy (Kenneth Michael Williams) even goes so far as to sneak evidence to Naz’s defense team that should have forced a mistrial. When asked why, Freddy talks about how from the moment he saw Naz he knew he was innocent and Naz’s “unicorn” quality in a sea of guilt was what drew him to protect what he could of that light.
Each ponderous episode with its gorgeous production value and attention to detail follows Naz’s arrest, his struggle to survive within prison walls with very few street smarts initially, as well as how both the prosecution and defense build their cases in his highly publicized trial. As the minutes tick toward unfolding what happened the night of Andrea Cornish’s murder, a sense of dread escalates, culminating in the surprising two-hour finale, in which her killer is finally revealed. And as we already knew, it was never Naz.
Naz gives South Asians something they rarely get on TV: representation.
While I was researching my second novel, I watched thousands of hours of crime procedurals and read hundreds of crime novels, and yet nothing in those six years affected me in the same way as The Night Of. Partly, I think that’s because none of that crime fiction ever had a South Asian family in its center. Being half American and half Sri Lankan, I am constantly looking for narratives that speak to my own experience as an Other-American.
Another part is that this particular crime procedural, even though it is still fiction, is far more true to life than any other I’ve seen. I know, because I was a key witness in a high-profile murder case — and living through something like that is nothing like it is on television. I think that’s why I was able to consume so much crime fiction while writing my book: because none of it felt real.
That isn’t the case with The Night Of, even a little bit. While I was sucked into the story of my persecuted Pakistani-American brother, I regularly internally debated whether I should stop watching the show. My levels of anxiety were through the roof and I found myself having nightmares on Naz’s behalf. If I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t have survived even that first week.
But I started to receive an uncomfortable education in the American legal system from the other side, and that was ultimately why I kept watching.
Stellar acting makes The Night Of almost too realistic.
Riz Ahmed’s transformation from Naz’s wide-eyed boy to prison-savvy man is flawless, and Amara Karan’s controlled performance as his young and bumbling lead counsel, Chandra Kapoor, is especially breathtaking. Poorna Jagannathan’s portrayal of Naz’s conflicted mother is on point, and John Turturro’s ambulance-chasing and psoriasis-suffering Jack Stone is one of the most authentic characters of his career.
The only thing that broke the fourth wall for me was Peyman Moaadi’s Iranian-accented English — when he’s supposed to be playing a Pakistani. I recognized it long before confirming his ethnic background on IMDB. Still, in spite of that blunder (which most wouldn’t even notice), as a South Asian-American it was such a rare delight to see my people headlining an HBO show. With the network’s new program to develop Asian-American voices, I hope to be seeing lots more of our stories on TV.
Even though I watched each episode of The Night Of at least twice after it aired, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the series again in the context of the devastating finale’s revelation. It wasn’t just that my PTSD was triggered by the all-too-realistic courtroom scenes — the district attorney, Mrs. Weiss, looked and acted like the defense attorney who defended my friend’s murderer. (That defense attorney asked me questions like, “Why were you out so late?” “How much had you drank?” “Why were you out so far from your school?”) I also found myself reflecting on all the people who get arrested each day for things they didn’t do, just because they have the wrong color skin or were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The high numbers of suicides before and after remand also began to make sense to me, and my heart broke in new places. The wheels of justice move slowly, and once you are in the system it can be months or years before you even see the inside of a courtroom. We saw what Naz had to do to survive — and that was just for a few months. In real life, it’s far worse.
And honestly, as someone whose testimony put away two actual murderers for the rest of their lives, I spend a lot of time actively not thinking about what life is like on the inside. People constantly tell me to watch Orange is the New Black for its feminist themes, not understanding that I have an actual real-life relationship to women in prison seeing as I’m responsible for one woman’s life imprisonment for the murder of my best friend. If I had known that The Night Of would open some of my own personal wounds, I would have skipped it — even though I would have missed out on all I learned watching it.
A crash course in criminal law
I’ve never better understood the concept of “reasonable doubt” than I do now, thanks to the show. Even though (as Turturro says in his closing argument) there is no official definition for this important legal concept, it is simply what we feel and what we believe based on the evidence presented. I now start to understand why certain cases that were tried in the public eye — while being tried in court — don’t always end the way we expect, like O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony’s famous not-guilty verdicts.
The Night Of also perfectly illustrates how an innocent person can get enmeshed in the prison industrial complex and learn how to become a criminal while inside. Naz begins trafficking drugs, regularly consuming drugs (which he didn’t before) and even becomes an accessory to murder while incarcerated. On his release, his drug habit follows him out, and so do the hand and neck tattoos that became part of his survival plan. Naz was “lucky.” He didn’t get sexually assaulted during his few months in prison. One of his prison-mates was not so fortunate, and took his own life shortly after.
Even though the prison system should function under the same rule-of-law tenets as the rest of society, clearly it doesn’t. We only have to watch the news to see that inside those prison walls is a world of its own that operates in a parallel universe, and it takes a different kind of strength to survive. Not everyone is cut out for it, and once you realize you have the knack, you’ll probably find yourself back in there. The vicious cycle is horrifying.
This show should be used as a teaching tool in high school and university classes to spark discussions about race, religion, the ins and outs of the legal system and the permissiveness and often irresponsibility of the media in America, especially by so-called journalists who peddle in keeping the melting pot of social problems in this country at a steady boil. The Night Of is nuanced, beautifully acted — please give Riz Ahmed, Kenneth Michael Williams, Amara Karan and John Turturro all the awards and immediately — and quietly thrilling. It offers haunting social commentary that manages to tell its story without any nudity, gratuitous violence, or other shock-value gimmicks that most of HBO’s shows seem to hinge on. The Night Of should be required viewing for every American adult, and most especially in our current turbulent political times.