How Netflix’s “Mo” Avoids Usual Representation Pitfalls
Hollywood’s efforts to address its diversity issues have gone through predictable but sometimes hilarious growing pains. Random minorities now appear in all sorts of unexpected places, whether in American corporate boardrooms, in rural police departments, or in fantasy landscapes that were once the haunt of white actors wearing prosthetic ears. Many of these efforts are commendable, if not always successful in doing more than putting a few different shades on an IMDb page. But they can also seem superficial, as if the show’s producers are just placating various people who they hope won’t cancel them on Twitter.
“Mo,” Netflix’s loosely autobiographical half-hour comedy based on the life of Mohammed Amer — a great, perpetually wronged, swaggering comedic actor in the Jackie Gleason tradition — checks many diversity boxes. The main character, Mo, is a Palestinian refugee who lives in Houston. He has a Latina girlfriend named Maria, a Nigerian best friend named Nick, and an Asian American drug dealer named Chien. Other than a benevolent immigration attorney who forgets to take off his shoes upon entering the house, there are no white characters of note.
“It’s a show about belonging,” Amer told CNN recently. “It’s a show about identity and the desire to be seen.” This type of statement would normally place “Mo” under immediate suspicion as the type of serious immigrant production who really only exists to show white people how minorities live. I think these shows fall into one of two categories: We Are Like You or Dignity Porn.
Programs in the first category exist to show that minorities exist in many of the same places where one would expect to find wealthy whites: doctors’ offices, law firms, or private schools. Every five episodes or so, these minorities always go to their parents’ house for a bowl of stew and whatever their country’s version of dumplings is. The protagonist’s internal struggle almost always comes from their ardor, but also, somehow, the low stakes have to triangulate their own success with the fact that they are, in fact, an oppressed minority. Dignity Porn, on the other hand, is an older tradition, which shows the same minorities in more humble settings, whether in a refugee camp or in the neighborhood. The aim is to show the viewer that these immigrants also have lives, jokes, hopes and dreams. What connects these two categories is their orientation around the affluent and cultured person – either the white colleague who forges an unexpected friendship with a minority, or the imaginary audience member whose empathy is meant to grow with every passing image.
“Mo” is something else, something much better. The show follows the main character; his mother, Yusra; and his brother Sameer, as they attempt to navigate the US asylum and immigration system. Mo and his family neither particularly like nor hate America; they’re just trying to survive it – they want to get their papers so they can work normally and not get caught by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The various characters on the show don’t seem to feel particularly oppressed by whiteness, and don’t spend much time thinking about the cost of their success because, for the most part, they’re all struggling. We learn, through flashback, that Mo’s family members were Palestinian refugees who had to leave their adopted home of Kuwait in 1991 during the Gulf War, and that Mo’s father was tortured. The family’s fight for their asylum status, illustrated by a series of lawyers and courtroom appointments, has been going on for more than twenty years.
While this backstory and Mo’s Muslim faith are both vital to the show’s plot, “Mo” never quite falls into the usual trappings of martyrdom, largely because Mo himself n isn’t particularly heroic or dignified. Instead, he’s an aging skinny drug addict who flies into irrational tantrums that endanger his friends. He shoves fake watches and bags in the trunk of his car and has grandiose delusions about how much he has actually sacrificed for his family.
A lesser show might have tried to make Mo a bit more likable, or, perhaps, planted in him a sincere desire to explain his culture to the rest of the world. But whenever I felt like “Mo” was going to dive into a teaching moment, Amer would start acting like an asshole. At the start of the season, Mo comes across a chocolate-hummus display in a grocery store and berates the nice white woman handing out samples. Instead of using chocolate hummus as an easy gag — which whites and minorities may agree is ridiculous — the show creates a moment of discomfort, with Mo screaming in her face. Culture, for Mo, is sacred unless it is inconvenient. He gets a tattoo, much to his mother’s chagrin. He works as a DJ in a strip club. When he talks about his faith or the history of olive oil, we don’t know exactly how seriously we should take his claims, or the wayward and sometimes opportunistic ways in which he takes advantage of his identity. . In other words, he acts like every immigrant I’ve met who grew up in America.
But Amer also has an eye for what defines immigrants outside of cultural theater. In an episode at the end of the first season, Sameer has an incident at his job at a fast food chicken joint. At this point, the public understood that he is almost certainly on the autism spectrum; his family handles his condition with a mixture of passion and denial. When Mo and her estranged sister come to the rescue, Sameer’s boss and a teenage colleague point out that Sameer has autism, which Mo vehemently denies. Their mother, Yusra, also feigns ignorance when Sameer asks why she never asks about his marriage prospects – something she bothers Mo about throughout the show. “Is it because there is something wrong with me?” he says. “Never think like that,” she replies. Members of Sameer’s family never recognize his state by name, and there is no reckoning that affirms the ways of the old world or the new. All of this is simply endured.
In the background of it all is the city of Houston, with its freeways, shopping malls and sprawling neighborhoods. The city, home to more than 1.5 million immigrants and seventy thousand refugees, features in nearly every scene, whether in the soundtrack, which features local artists such as Fat Pat, Big Pokey and Paul Wall, in Mo’s classic American sedan, or among cowboys, Mo indulges in buying counterfeits. Amer’s Houston presents us with a type of immigrant different from what Hollywood usually offers: the characters are thorny, resourceful, unassimilable. They don’t care if white people will like them or understand them. No one went to Harvard, not even Rice. Everyone jostles, but not in a particularly glamorous way. Mo’s Palestinian family, his Mexican girlfriend and his Nigerian best friend all alternate between their native language and English; they run auto repair shops and work in barbershops; they argue in hookah bars about Israel, Palestine, and 1947. All of these scenes are delivered with a warmth, confidence, and localism that evoke Spike Lee’s Brooklyn, the E-40 Bay Area, or the Philadelphia that Sylvester Stallone commemorated in “Rocky.” “This, I believe, is a true feat of representation – not an account of how individual minorities interact with the white world, but rather a detailed portrait of a place and the immigrants who live there.
I don’t really think “Mo” is a show about identity or belonging, as Amer said in his CNN interview. But I agree that, at its greatest strength, it’s important to be seen, not by strangers who need every gesture to be readable, but by people who can appreciate touching but ultimately doomed mannerisms. , which the characters try to connect. Minority creators today can sometimes confuse melancholy with nuance, neuroses with insight, and moody low-light camera stuff with artistry. It’s truly refreshing to see a protagonist who resists sympathy or identification – a big, on-screen strongman who shouts about everything from Rolexes to prayer rugs, but keeps quiet in those awkward moments when we , in fact, are not like you. ♦