How ‘On My Block’ Breaks the Mold

Media about teens rarely centres people of color. Just look at two of the biggest teen dramas currently airing — Riverdale and Stranger Things. Riverdale has a range of characters of color, however, with the exception of Veronica and her family, these characters only ever come to the fore as a result of their importance to the central white leads. Meanwhile, in Stranger Things, the sole POC lead Lucas is sorely underwritten in comparison to the rest of the characters, with the show barely even acknowledging his family exists. In both of these cases, people of color don’t get to exist on their own terms.

Enter On My Block, a Netflix comedy/drama which just aired its third season last month. The show is unique in the space for featuring a cast largely comprised of people of color. In fact, most episodes of the show don’t have any white people speaking at all, which is practically unheard of in Western TV. In allowing these Black and Latinx teenagers to exist as the majority, On My Block creates space for them to exist as more than just representations of their racial and ethnic groups. Instead, they’re allowed to simply be fun and interesting characters getting up to hijinks like any other teens. 

Breaking Out

The character which benefits most from this freedom is Jamal (Brett Gray), the peculiar and scrawny member of the crew who is obsessed with finding the ‘Rollerworld Money’ — the subject of a local urban legend. Throughout the show he has an outlandish energy which can’t be contained, allowing some of On My Block’s weirder elements to come into play. We get Jamal encountering cursed gnomes and befriending bizarre characters like Ruby’s renegade grandmother and the washed-out singer called Rosé who’s always holding a glass of the wine that shares her name. He even gets a cold open in season 3 which is shot in black and white with melodramatic narration where he envisions himself as a hard-boiled detective. All this ridiculousness is possible because Jamal doesn’t have to represent an entire community. Jamal can just be Jamal.

This is reflected more broadly in the rest of the show where all the teens are allowed to be teens. They can have petty issues with their friends, get drunk in a park at night, or just be silly and horny. All of this can occur without writers feeling the need to burst in and write A Very Special Episode to address racial issues because, in a cast that’s almost entirely composed of people of color, the everyday realities of race and racism don’t need to dominate any one character’s arc. 

At the same time, On My Block definitely doesn’t ignore these realities. Each of the characters’ stories are embedded in their respective identities, which come through in the subtext of the show. Jamal’s complicated relationship with his dad very clearly reflects how his weirdness doesn’t fit into a very specific notion of Black masculinity which his dad fits to a tee as a straight-laced former star sportsman. There’s also a clear racial element in terms of how other characters like Cesar (Diego Tinoco) and Monse (Sierra Capri) in particular constantly feel like they need to break out of the archetypes set up for them by the world around them. Monse constantly brushes up against the stereotype of the “angry black woman” whilst Cesar feels trapped by the idea of the “Latinx gangbanger.”

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On My Block

Building the Block

On My Block demonstrates a persistent awareness of the almost entirely Black and Latinx composition of “the block” and how that contrasts with other areas. This racialised reality is most clear when members of the cast (particularly Monse) end up in Brentwood, a much whiter and wealthier suburb, at which point the dynamic of the show completely changes. There’s way less brevity and freedom because the power and ownership of the space has completely shifted. The show still manages to be funny, but the humor moves away from whimsy and into biting satire.

Early on, the characters go to a Halloween party where the rich white teens of Brentwood dress up as the gangbangers which are the everyday reality of the central cast. Halfway through Season 3, the crew attends a funeral in Brentwood and are repeatedly mistaken for the help. Both of these cases reflect an objectification and removal of the agency which allows them to be so free and ridiculous in their own environment. In showing the spaces where the characters of color don’t have the power to express themselves, On My Block makes us appreciate the spaces where they do.

In presenting teens of color in a space where they actually have the power of self-expression, On My Block affirms the youthful freedom which is so frequently taken away from them in a world which loads them with trauma and labels them as dangerous before they even reach adulthood. On My Block lets its characters have romances, solve mysteries, and just exist as people. And that sense of mundanity is precisely what makes it so remarkable.

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