Discrimination. Injustice. Oppression. Cruelty. Terrorism. Profiling. These words have become part of our everyday vocabulary. One would think that as we become more civilised, we should progress into a better world, but it looks like we’re actually regressing. Sigh.
Anyway, the volatile state of the present day pretty much colours our view (as intended, surely) when we watch HBO’s eight-episode crime drama The Night Of, which shines a light on the US criminal justice system from different angles.
The first episode introduces the audience to Naz Khan (Riz Ahmed), an American whose parents migrated there from Pakistan.
From just a couple of quick scenes, we learn that Naz is a typical first-generation immigrant – he still has strong ties to the ways of the old country, but has also adopted much of the culture of his present home.
He is the smartest student in his college and a good son – he tutors a jock and accompanies his mother home from her workplace.
Understandably, he desperately wants to be part of the crowd, too.
The night referred to in the cleverly incomplete title sees Naz trying to get to a college party he’s finally invited to, despite the reservations of his traditional parents. A wrong turn en route brings him in contact with a stranger who invites him into her home.
Drugs and alcohol are added to the mix and then, bam! He wakes up and the girl is dead – stabbed and left bloodied on the bed they just shared. Panicking, he runs out of her house but is seen by a neighbour. In a tense unfolding of events from that point, Naz is arrested and all the evidence points to him as a killer.
Like Naz – who says he can’t remember what happened – the audience has no clue whether he is really guilty or is just a patsy. But the detective in charge gets Naz to cooperate by playing good cop and decides that the young man is guilty. After he is arraigned at the same court where a judge was previously shown to be biased, Naz is sent to prison to await trial.
Can this young man, with his constant deer-in-the-headlights look, survive prison … even if it turns out he’s actually manipulating everyone’s intolerance, and really did commit the crime?
The Night Of doesn’t skirt around issues of race and religion in showing folks like defence lawyers, cops and even Naz’s fellow prisoners casting a prejudiced eye on him. It’s messed up, but hey, if we’re being honest – that’s how the world works.
The system and its people are flawed. At the same time, the series does have its fair share of unbiased characters too, just like we get in real life.
While Naz’s colour and creed are at the forefront of The Night Of, and there is a constant shifting of gears to present both his possible guilt and innocence, these aren’t the only things that keep the viewer interested.
What The Night Of does beautifully too is develop its characters, simply and economically but with a lot of care.
Just with a static scene of Naz sitting in a police interrogation room waiting for his parents to come in, we gain some understanding of all three characters’ psyche. In another impactful visual, we are hit right in the gut watching a prison guard pat down small kids visiting their parents in jail.
The Night Of also distinguishes itself through the superb performances of its cast. Ahmed is simply arresting in the role of this naive young man who lands in jail among hardened criminals just because of one night of mistakes.
To quote a line from The Shawshank Redemption, he has to either get busy living or get busy dying – but he has to decide soon as his fellow inmates don’t look too kindly on him.
And Ahmed conveys the desperation of Naz’s situation with just his demeanour and gaze.
Another standout is John Turturro as Jack Stone, the lawyer who takes on Naz’s case. He’s a minor lawyer who lands a big case because he happens to be in the right place at the right time.
However, with just the correct level of quirks bestowed by Turturro, Stone becomes a character that the audience just knows will do right by his client.
Stone doesn’t care if people stay away from him because of the eczema on his feet – which forces him to wear sandals when he longs to wear shoes – or saying things like “The truth can go to hell, because it doesn’t help you” to his client, because he understands the system.
Ahmed and Turturro are only two of many great character actors in this series, which is also filled with many points of view and cultural aspects that show how Americans in different vocations and from different backgrounds think, and how the country works.
There are many takeaways, but The Night Of’s most important role is that it makes us think about these perspectives and prejudices.
The Night Of airs every Monday at 9am on HBO (Astro Ch 411).