I seldom feel as if movies and television are speaking directly to me. I’m a feminist academic who grew up poor in a mostly-brown neighborhood in a post-industrial city. I like shows “for women,” but that distinction too often suggests that there is something frivolous about women-centered cultural production. Shondaland (the production company and narrative universe created by Shonda Rhimes) has come closest to making me feel seen on television, but her most compelling characters come from such extreme class privilege that I have to work hard to find them relatable. When media does center working-class people, it usually focuses on trashiness or trauma.
Then I saw Mindy Kaling’s recent film Late Night. It’s a comedy, so I’m sure my companion was a little perplexed that I cried through most of it. But these were happy tears. Kaling deftly uses comedy to shed light on some of the most pressing issues of the day – sexism, racism, and workplace harassment.
The main character, Molly Patel, is an Indian-American from central Pennsylvania who struggles to succeed in the cutthroat New York writers’ room of a the eponymous talk show hosted by Katherine Newberry,, the first woman host on late-night American television. Emma Thompson gives a tour-de-force performance as Katherine, and Kaling’s Molly is a sensitive-but-tough Millennial superheroine. The cast of white male writers is – deliberately – roughly interchangeable, and one of the more amusing moments happens when Katherine assigns them numbers to replace their names. They are all beastly to Molly, because, as she points out, they believe that they are funnier, more talented, and more qualified than she is, as if getting hired through family connections is somehow better than getting in the door through other means.
Some of the moments that might seem most preposterous – Molly sitting on a garbage can because there are no open chairs in the room, Molly overhearing the writers snarking about her racial background, and Molly crying under her desk after being kicked out of the women’s restroom so her male coworker can take a shit – are in fact the most true to life. The diverse audience at my showing was laughing out loud, because so many situations resonated so deeply. It’s funny because it’s true – and it’s funnier when we can point a finger at it and agree how utterly ridiculous it is.
Kaling’s writing can feel surprisingly universal. Her experience of sexism and the negative reactions to her earnestness are things to which many of us can relate. Her journey to New York City from industrial Pennsylvania could be my own from Lackawanna, NY. Her character has my name. But this film is, most importantly, about the specific experiences of a South Asian woman in the white, male-dominated industry of late-night television. Kaling is careful to set up a complex conversation on intersectionality. A less gifted writer might have made this about how we’re all trapped in this system, but concluded that there’s nothing to be done about it. Kaling is more intelligent, and more sympathetic.
The Katherine we first meet is another stock character. Other films might have made Katherine into just another friendless villain hardened by simultaneous fights with sexism and ageism. Then we are forced to see that she is negotiating some of the same issues as Molly – while also perpetuating them. It is a gentle but firm look at how people’s social positions are often multifaceted, and how race, sex, and wealth can pull at one another in complex ways.
Kaling also subtly examines her own position, poking fun at the elite schools that turn out the interchangeable dude-bros who make up the majority of television writers. Kaling herself was educated at such institutions – a private day school in Boston, and then Dartmouth University – and while that might have given her confidence and shaped her intelligence, it wasn’t enough to overcome her sex and skin. Kaling uses this marvelous matrix to show exactly how intersectionality works, and engages in one of comedy’s best practices – punching up to take down white men and women who might have dismissed her as a diversity hire.
Kaling has spoken before about needing the attitude of an entitled white man to succeed in her field. She credits her parents for instilling that in her. But what about Molly, who believes in herself, but who never comes across as entitled? We see her personal mantra in the poster she tacks up on her wall, to the disgust of her jaded officemate who has never furnished the room: “Never Give Up.” The scene made me snicker. It seemed, at first, like a lighthearted poke at pseudo-feminist positivity culture. But on second thought, it might be what drives the movie – we need extreme grit and unending hope to climb out of the white supremacist patriarchal mess that is the world around us.
That message can’t undo structural issues, but maybe it can help people, especially women – especially women of color – to navigate them. This is very likely what has worked for Kaling. However, the call to “buck up and work hard” and to get people to see how good you are is the one part of the film that bothered me. The feel-good relationships that Molly succeeds in building with even her sworn enemies make for a neat resolution to the central conflicts of the story, but they almost undermine Kaling’s otherwise nuanced treatment of feminine likeability. Racism and sexism aren’t just about poor education or lack of socialization – they’re powerful systems built and reinforced by the people who benefit from them, and sometimes no amount of moral persuasion or personal education will undo them.
Kaling certainly knows this, so I’ll offer another possible reading of the male writers’ sudden change of heart: it is prescriptive. The key lies in the last scene: a writers’ room that well-represents America’s diversity. Black and Asian women do the talking, and Katherine listens with an easy smile. The scene’s comedy is layered; it looks a little (a lot) like the kind of one-of-each tokenized diversity that HR brochures like to emphasize. It also doesn’t exist anywhere. Even as more “woke” late-night hosts like Trevor Noah and Seth Meyers hire from a broader talent pool, nobody’s writing room is this representative. And that is the point. The entire trajectory of Late Night is built around offering a way forward. It critiques, often bitingly, the ways in which structural discrimination affects everyone – and then it impels us to come up with a better world.
This is a good, important, and most crucially, HYSTERICALLY FUNNY film. Sadly, its brilliance has not been matched at the box office – perhaps because Amazon Studios seems to have spent a lot of money on a highly-ineffective marketing campaign. I only heard about the film when I read Kaling’s Twitter feed, so I’m profoundly grateful that my lack of home air conditioning got me into the theater last week. So do yourself a favor – go see it, marvel at how astounding it is, and laugh until your sides hurt. Then be a part of making the world that Kaling has envisioned.