Theoretically, there shouldn't be racial bias in the U.S. justice system. Yet as has been proven time and time again, on both macro and micro levels, racism is everywhere in our courts. HBO's new crime drama, The Night Of, is tackling that bias head-on.
(Editor's note: Spoilers ahead for the first season of The Night Of.)
In The Night Of, Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), the son of Pakistani immigrants and a practicing Muslim, gets invited to a party in Manhattan. Nasir, or Naz, wants to take a night off from being the kid who stays in to study. He takes his dad's cab — without permission — and heads into the city, but he never makes it to his destination. Instead, the next morning, he finds himself in jail, charged with the murder of a woman he spent the night with, after the police find her covered in blood in her own bed.
From the moment the police suspect Naz of the murder, race is a factor. The show doesn't shy away from this reality; instead, it confronts it. When Sgt. Box (Bill Camp) asks witnesses from the block of the woman's home to look at pictures of Arab men and identify the attacker, the witness, a black man, makes a comment about how he already told him it was an Arab and identifies Naz. Even though Naz has no previous criminal history — not even a speeding ticket — the court refuses to set his bail. Both of Naz's lawyers point out how egregious that is, noting Naz isn't a flight risk because he doesn't have a passport and has never been to Pakistan.
But The Night Of doesn't just address how the prosecution can use race against a potentially innocent minority suspect. It also tackles how the race card can be used as a weapon when others try to take advantage of someone's minority status.
After scrappy lawyer Jack Stone (John Turturro), who has never tried a murder case before, eagerly comes to Naz's aide during his first night in jail, another lawyer swoops in. Alison Crowe (Glenne Headly) from an expensive, high-profile law firm offers to represent Naz at no cost to his family. Naz's parents have $8,000 in the bank, while Stone asks for $50,000 to defend their son, so the other offer seems like the best option. Crowe plays a "white savior" role, representing Naz out of the kindness of her heart — but in reality, she's only interested in the publicity she can gain from press covering a high-profile murder case.
As soon as Crowe realizes she's not going to be able to easily settle the case, however, she rescinds her offer, leaving Naz and his family without any representation. This is heartless — but it's a reality. Both the people defending Naz and the prosecution have something to gain from the fact that he's a young Muslim American man with no criminal history but a good amount of damning evidence linking him to the crime. Not only can race hurt Naz through unfair racial profiling from Detective Box, it can also make him a target to be taken advantage of by people just looking to use his story for their own gain.
Naz's case alone provides a specific, critical look at the justice system, but The Night Of broadens the scope. When Naz is transferred to Rikers' Island, his fellow inmates serve as an example of the racial make-up of a prison in the United States today. Most of the other men in prison are African-American or Hispanic. White men are a minority inside the prison walls.
This casting choice makes a conscious effort to reflect the reality of prison life, and it also makes The Night Of's cast remarkably diverse. A Muslim American playing a leading role is practically unheard of on TV, even in 2016 with hundreds of shows on the air.
Instead of shying away from the uncomfortable connection between race and crime in the U.S., especially at a time where it is such a relevant and charged topic, The Night Of explores exactly how it does affect a young Muslim American, of Pakistani descent, charged with murder. The show's commitment to portraying how the criminal justice system actually works — racial bias and all — makes for one of the most honest depictions of law and order on television.
The Night Of airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. New episodes also become available for streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now Sundays at 9 p.m.