The lost lesson of diversity in “Late Night”

Film fails to recognize the true value of a diverse workplace

emma-thompson-2008

Emma Thompson receives an award in 2008. Thompson and Mindy Kaling star in a movie that tries to discuss diversity but instead pokes fun at the issue at hand.

Courtesy Andy Mettler

“Late Night,” written by Mindy Kaling and released June 7, tries to tackle issues of diversity by following late-night comedy show host Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson) as she hires Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) as her only female writer. Katherine is provoked by criticism of her all-male writer’s room, including accusations that she “hates women.” It seems like this “diversity hire” happens almost purely out of spite as Katherine attempts to prove that she would not find another woman in the office threatening. So what does she do? Hire a non-threatening woman of color who has almost no experience in the comedy field. 

While “Late Night” attempts to offer an accessible route for older, white demographics to support diversity in the workplace, it fails to recognize the true value of having a diverse staff until later in the film. In Patel’s interview, as she reveals that she has no experience as a paid writer or comedian and got her interview by winning an essay contest, her interviewer receives a call from Katherine pressuring him to hire a woman. 

Given Molly’s lack of experience as a writer and comedian, the film gives the audience no reason to think that she was more than a diversity hire. Realistically, her male counterpart who has connections to the company and graduated from a prestigious university would have gotten the position.

Although Molly’s role as a writer is solidified further in the film when she suggests ways to improve the reach of the show, she is shown as incompetent for the first portion of the film. With each cry in the bathroom and poor performance in meetings, the film positions Molly as completely undeserving of her job. This portrayal seems to prove her racist male counterparts correct — that she truly was a diversity hire and was only there to fulfill a racial quota. Perhaps had Molly been a bit more experienced in this field and more put together in her work setting, her value as a writer with unique perspective would have come through more than her value as a diversity hire.

Additionally, the film fails to fully address the intersectionality of Molly’s identity as both a woman and a person of color in a predominantly white, male office. As soon as Molly enters the scene, her position as the black sheep is attributed to her poor performance as a writer and lack of experience, not her identity. Even as Katherine and her publicist gather at an event, they praise Molly as Katherine’s Indian protégé and use her race and background to prove Katherine’s empathy and care as an employer. Furthermore, the issue of Katherine supposedly hating women who threaten her still hangs unresolved as she does not view Molly as a crucial part of her show until the conclusion of the film.

Masked by a comedic setting, the film also discusses serious themes, such the isolation felt in depression. One evening at the office, Molly reveals to Katherine that Katherine’s open discussion about her depression helped Molly feel like she was not the only one who felt that way. This heart-to-heart speaks to the power of public figures sharing their experiences with mental health issues, as it makes their audience feel like they are not alone. Furthermore, Katherine explores the loneliness in her depression when she later describes her urge to make others hate themselves as much as she hates herself. 

The one-year-later clip at the end of the film showcases a diverse, productive-looking workplace, providing a feel-good moment for the audience. However, the difficulties in gaining and adjusting to this entirely new staff in a relatively toxic work environment are ignored and seem to mimic the way college brochures place minority students on their covers. While portraying the challenges of diverse employees does not give for snappy entertainment, it would prove more rewarding for minority viewers and encourage more empathy from white audiences. 

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