And if [the black body’s] consciousness is not experienced by the Other as invisible, it is the repository for the offscum of racial relations—to black subjectivity is attributed the contents that white consciousness itself fears to contain or confront: bestial sexuality, uncleanliness, criminality, all purported ‘dark things’.—Charles Johnson, A Phenomenology of the Black Body
Two years ago yesterday, the body of 18-year-old Michael Brown lay uncovered and smoldering under the hot summer sun for nearly four hours. He had just been shot to death by Officer Darren Wilson, who would later go on to describe the teen to a grand jury as a “demon” with superhuman strength. “The only way I can [explain holding onto the 6’5, 290 lb Brown] is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” said the 6’4, 210 lb officer.
Brown’s death would go on to add fuel to the burgeoning Movement for Black Lives and its fight against systematic anti-Black violence, a movement that has surely influenced how television engages with race today. The depth of conversations prompted by Black television characters and their storylines in the past year alone is arguably unprecedented (some previously noted standouts being HBO’s phenomenal The Leftovers and ABC’s American Crime).
HBO’s new widely lauded miniseries The Night Of is no exception, though perhaps not for all the right reasons.
The show follows a Pakistani-American man, Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), who starts the season off by borrowing his father’s taxi to drive to a party. Along the way, he picks up a white woman who mistakes him for a cab driver, and they end the night with drugs and sex—or, at least, he does. When Naz awakes, he discovers that her night ended in brutal murder, and we watch as he attempts to prove his innocence within a vexatious criminal justice system.
This is a representation of the same justice system that left Brown’s dead body uncovered for what some posited only served the purpose of pouring salt in the wounds of his family, community and supporters. Forensics experts agreed that, if anything, keeping the body out in the heat for so long would harm an investigation.
But this week’s episode of The Night Of sheds some light on all the justification one might need to do such a seemingly senseless thing, in what one critic called a “ludicrous, ghoulish, hilarious scene.”
In “The Season of the Witch,” we are presented with a two-and-a-half minute conversation in which D.A. Helen Weiss convinces the coroner to provide testimony that an injury on Naz’s hand resulted from slipping onto the blade of the knife during the murder (though we saw earlier that it was inflicted by broken glass). The entire scene plays out over a completely exposed dead Black body receiving an autopsy. The coroner even instructs Weiss to place the picture of the injury in question onto the body, the camera thrusting the lifeless big black dick into view repeatedly. Hilarious, indeed.
From Mike Brown to the nameless dead character, the Black body’s inhumane presentation is far from senseless. The function of engaging black bodies this way is not just to pour salt into fresh wounds, or to show a demented sense of humor, but to justify the contrasting humane presentation of non-Black people. As acclaimed novelist Toni Morrison writes in Playing In The Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, the construction of the “Africanlike” persona “has become, in the Eurocentric tradition that American education favors, both a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class, sexual license, and repression, formations and exercises of power, and meditations on ethics and accountability… It provides a way of contemplating chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom.”
“Black people” become “Black bodies,” and bodies presented as beastlike, hypersexual, criminal, and lacking consciousness give proof of a contrasting non-Black human, modest, and moral living being.
The conception of Black people as nothing more than bodies—never fully human—is integral to how the same violence that ended Brown’s life can be justified. Black people must exist in both the imagination and world as non-human, in order for the humanity that others are afforded to make sense.
The carcass of a non-human “demon” can lie on the pavement for four hours for the same reason its killer can go without indictment, despite his ludicrous story. The “hulk” body’s treatment is treatment that is only reserved for monsters, therefore it is also treatment that proves criminality. Brown’s monstrosity was necessary for Darren Wilson’s innocence. The four hour public performance of Michael Brown’s death becomes the central plot device for an anti-Black society’s script.
The fact that the dead body in this scene was Black does not seem to be a coincidence. It is part of an episode some used as basis for the argument that the series’ white creators work “beautifully” (with a beautiful dementedness that is surely Emmy-bound), but it is not the only way the idea of Black people as non-human is used within The Night Of. Almost all of the show’s Black characters introduced so far exist only to be used by and propel forward the narratives of other characters, especially its non-white—but also non-Black—protagonist.
Naz may have gotten away from the crime scene, were it not for a Black female Officer who gave him a much harder time than her white partner did, after he was stopped while fleeing. His primary antagonists in prison are Black, their beastlike faces illuminated by flames after they burn his prison bed at the end of episode three.
Naz’s defense attorney, John Stone (played excellently by John Torturro), has a Black child, Black ex-wife, and he fucks a Black prostitute—none of whom have yet been given their own backstory, but each make his character more complex and enigmatic.
Nearly all the anti-Muslim rhetoric in the show is leveled by Black people, and the only other primary suspect for the murder is revealed in this episode to be a Black man. He not only just so happens to have the improbable name of “Duane Reade” (and not just improbable, for not being spelled “Dwayne Reed”), but also because he is the same man who looked on as Naz was berated with Islamophobic slurs by his Black friend.
In episode two, another one of Stone’s clients receives a lengthy prison sentence for a minor crime after watching a white collar criminal get a slap on the wrist. “Why can’t I get time like the Jew got?” he asks. The judge retorts, “You want Jew time? Do a Jew crime.”
At this point, the story has become overwhelmingly reliant on the idea that Black folks are not their own people, but the conduits for the humanity of others, a fact many white critics have so far overlooked. Co-writer Richard Price also worked on The Wire, which I believe attempted to engage anti-Blackness at a far deeper level, so one is forced to wonder whether these storylines will play out in more appropriate (and less anti-Black) ways before the end of the season.
But as of now, one can learn quite a bit from the show about how Black people become Black bodies, and how Black bodies must be engaged for social coherence in an anti-Black society. In real life and on screen, Black people have their humanity denied in order to be used to build others’ quirky character attributes (like in the case of Stone), to create a contrast that can reinforce the humanity of others (like Naz amongst the Black inmates), or to be laughed at when crafted as tropes, like the hypersexual mandingo.
Black folks everywhere are aggressively refusing to continue to follow this stale narrative. No matter the technical skill displayed in The Night Of, this show and any others must refuse to follow it as well, or they themselves should be refused.
Hari Ziyad is a Brooklyn-based storyteller and the Editor-in-Chief of RaceBaitR. Their work has been featured on Gawker, Out, Ebony, Mic, The Guardian, Colorlines, Black Girl Dangerous, Young Colored and Angry, The Feminist Wire and The Each Other Project. They are also an assistant editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose and a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism.