“Late Night spins a great message about racial diversity, but stops short at embodying it.”
Title: Late Night (2019)
Director: Nisha Ganatra 👩🏽🇨🇦🇺🇸🌈
Writer: Mindy Kaling 👩🏽🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Late Night strides through its two hour runtime with polish and confidence. Reflecting a glossy version of reality, characters are perfectly messy. Failures aren’t meaningless; they’re learning experiences. Hard work pays off in tangible (and immediate) ways, and dammit, of course the girl is going to get the guy.
Movies like this gorgeous gem from director Nisha Ganatra and screenwriter Mindy Kaling belong to a simpler time, when earnestness reigned and snappy quips never hurt enough to bleed. This hardly means it lacks depth; rather, gut-level truths about aging, relevancy, and human error sneak under the skin.
Best of all, Late Night uses a proven rags-to-riches storyline and universal emotional beats upon which to hang new clothes. With Kaling headlining as Molly Patel, an adorkable ingenue, the film’s offer of racial reconciliation feels believable rather than pandering. With Ganatra and Kaling behind the camera, we’re in good hands.
The cast of Late Night skews noticeably male, making up nearly the entire writers’ room where several scenes take place. But thankfully, the main narratives that preoccupy the film follow women.
Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson), a venerated, 56-year-old late night host, battles wits with the young and idealistic writer Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) whose lifelong dream has been to write for Katherine’s show. Their coming to terms with each other takes priority over smaller threads like the loving but imperfect bond between Katherine and her husband, or the chase between Molly and her male love interests.
If Katherine and Molly’s relationship provides the heart of Late Night, conflict between Katherine and the woman who bankrolls her show propels the film forward. Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan), the head of the network, points to a decade of declining ratings in her bid to replace Katherine with a younger and buzzier comedian, Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz). Seeing two powerful women go head-to-head feels affirming, especially since Caroline never becomes a caricatured villain. In fact, audiences will find it easy to sympathize with both simultaneously, as they pursue similar goals of producing a fantastic show while fighting to succeed at their respective careers.
Behind the lens, too, women hold court. Ganatra and Kaling have made a film that appeals to all, thanks to a stance on gender inequality that feels innocuous enough for men to buy into without feeling “attacked”. But underneath this sugar coating, Late Night does the important work of centering the careers, struggles, and triumphs of women, while disseminating their stories to a wide audience.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 44% of key cast and crew members were POC.
Although the premise of Late Night hinges on diversity at the workplace, the optics of an overwhelmingly white cast—set in New York City, too, which feels strange when you know how diverse the city’s populace really is—inadvertently reinforces that very inequality.
While it’s probably true that late night overwhelmingly favors white writers, the power of representation lies in showing, not telling. Ganatra’s film tells us that bringing together workers of different backgrounds improves creativity. But by depicting a starkly white writers’ room, viewers internalize those images as normal and quotidian.
Sure, Molly single-handedly introduces fresh ideas for Katherine’s show, like jokes about menopause or self-effacing takes on what it means to be a 50-something year old woman in Hollywood. But the only character of color who receives any development remains Molly. She navigates the film as the lone woman of color, with just a younger niece to chat with in two short scenes. This disparity truly becomes noticeable during the pat epilogue of the film, which shows a Disneyfied version of Katherine’s same writers’ room that more closely reflects actual demographics of New York City. But unlike the way Ganatra and Kaling work hard at devising rich and interesting women to care about, none of the racial victories shown in Late Night’s epilogue feel earned, or even believable.
On a different note, the film logistically offers job opportunities to more white actors than it does people of color, which feels counterintuitive to what Ganatra and Kaling are trying to achieve. Their film spins a great message about racial diversity, but stops short at embodying it.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +0.25
Late Night’s director, Nisha Ganatra, identifies as a lesbian. It’s exciting to see queer talent get major opportunities to advance their careers. Amazon paid a massive sum of $13 million to acquire her film, and hopefully her burnished resume continues to elevate her career alongside the underrepresented writers and actors she helps lift.
In addition, one of the male writers in a supporting role, Reynolds, telegraphs as as gay and is played by an openly gay actor, John Early. No fanfare nor confirmation occurs of his sexuality within the film, and this nonchalant inclusion of LGBTQ talent works wonderfully.
Mediaversity Grade: A 4.83/5
Late Night gives audiences the opportunity to sink into an easy comedy that feels good to watch. Better yet, its important message about diversifying workplaces can be shared widely and enjoyed by all manner of audiences.