The most talked-about episode of the new season of “Master of None” doesn’t revolve around the show’s main character, played by Aziz Ansari. Instead, it’s episode 8, “Thanksgiving,” in which we watch Denise, played by Lena Waithe, navigate coming out to her mother.
It’s a beautifully crafted episode, one that teases out the nuance and complexities of a black queer woman’s relationship with her mom. How often have we gotten to see a story like Denise’s? It’s a rarity in TV and film, a rarity in pop culture, and smack dab in the middle of one of Netflix’s most popular shows is an episode that feels authentic, honest and real in a way that few coming-out stories on TV ever do.
That’s what most of the praise for this episode has hinged on ― the deft way in which it chronicles, through a series of holiday dinners, Denise’s evolution from a young, closeted tomboy, to a college grad coming to terms with her sexuality, to a woman trying to get her mother, aunt and grandmother to fully acknowledge who she is.
Directed by Melina Matsoukas (best known for her work on “Lemonade”) and co-written by Waithe, the episode is one of the first portrayals in recent memory (aside from Dee Rees’ 2013 film “Pariah”) that deals specifically with the coming out of a black lesbian.
So here we have “Master of None,” a TV show created by and centered around Ansari, an Indian-American comic, with a standout episode that just happens to be directed, written by and starring black women. The success of the show and the “Thanksgiving” episode is a testament to one important thing: the potential for people of color to create spaces and platforms for each other that white gatekeepers and creators otherwise wouldn’t.
And it’s not just black queer stories that are being brought to the forefront on the show. Episode 6 in the second season of “Master of None” also delves into the lives of working-class people of color, including a group of African immigrants and a deaf black store clerk ― all characters who would normally just be in the background, but here, get the spotlight shined on them.
There’s truly something to be said for solidarity among POC, especially in the entertainment world, which so often seeks to tokenize minorities, shining a light on one “it” person of color at a time. Ansari is the “it” South Asian on TV right now thanks to this show ― before him, it was Mindy Kaling.
But through this show he’s making a point about the larger sense of connectivity among people of color, the fact that although our lives and struggles may be different, we share the same desire for deeper representation ― representation that doesn’t cater solely to the white gaze.
Shows like “Dear White People,” “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Being Mary Jane”― a predominantly black show that often takes moments to go into the backstory of Mary Jane’s Latina producer and best friend, Lisa ― are examples of the potential of creating space for telling other POC stories.
This doesn’t mean that different people of color shouldn’t focus on centering stories on our own experiences. But we should consider what kind of dialogue could be opened when we examine the experiences of others.
The “Master of None” model is one that many shows could learn from ― not only taking the time to explore a supporting character, but actually allowing that story to be told by someone who relates to and understands that point of view. As we create space for ourselves, we can create space for each other.