DIVERSITY ON TV
The ‘Get Down’’s Black Lives Matter Moment
Baz Luhrmann’s new Netflix series is certainly messy. But if there’s one thing it does powerfully, it’s connect struggles of the past to battles still being fought today.
But, regardless of reception, one thing that can’t be denied in a Baz Luhrmann project is ambition. And, for the first time from the renowned suzerain of razzle-dazzle, that ambition extends to social justice and making a larger cultural point.
In the lead up to its release, The Get Down’s dramatic production issues made headlines itself, with creative struggles, staffing issues, high tensions, and an exploding budget ballooning the cost of the series to an astonishing reported $120 million over its exhausting 2½-year production schedule. It’s an unprecedented cost for a production on an unprecedented scale.
And viewing those milestones through the lens of our current cultural conversations about the state of TV—conversations surrounding diversity, representation, and normalization—it’s significant that a production on this scale is for a series that centers on stories of color and features one of the most diverse casts on TV.
There was initial skepticism—deserved skepticism—when The Get Down was announced that Luhrmann, a white Australian director known for sweeping, blaring grandiosity, would be capable of telling this story with the proper nuance and authority.
The Get Down takes place in the South Bronx in 1977, offering a glimpse at the lives of a group of black and Puerto Rican teenagers at a time when the end of disco intersected with the dawn of hip-hop, and cultural tensions in a neighborhood literally on fire were about to ignite a new social movement.
To tell the story about teenagers trying to start their lives in a borough the city had forgotten, Luhrmann wisely relied on a slew of advisers, including Grandmaster Flash and rapper Nas, but most significantly author, historian, and music journalist Nelson George, who served as supervising producer on the series.
“Everything talks a good game about diversity but this is really stepping up to the plate,” George told Variety. “I feel like whatever we do, we’re already putting a stamp out there that the world can be different. That’s going to be the biggest takeaway. If we’re able to have a few more seasons, we’ll have said something about the bullshit that's been said in Hollywood for generations that the rest of the world isn’t interested in black stories.”
George has authored several books about hip-hop, and was 20 years old at the time The Get Down is set.
“As a black American, one of the things I was impressed by throughout is that Baz never tried to impose white characters in this world," he said. “That happens a lot in [black] narratives—you’ll have white characters in there to explain the world."
Indeed, preemptively defending himself against the idea that his mythical spin on this period in history might be construed as cultural appropriation, Luhrmann told critics and TV reporters gathered at last week’s Television Critics Association press tour, “This is not my story. This is a community project.”
There’s been a lot of focus ahead of The Get Down’s launch on its music. But the scenes that linger the most after watching, especially when viewed from the context of today’s world—a world in which social injustices and the inhuman negligence of the safety and prosperity of certain communities have given birth to the Black Lives Matter movement—are the ones that reveal what life was like for these kids living in a neighborhood where opportunity was scarce and ambition was discouraged.
The tenements were burning, set on fire by people hoping to collect insurance money. Gang violence was an everyday reality for kids who often had no option but to join the gangs themselves. Crime, drugs, poverty, and civic neglect provided the backdrop for the frustration that ultimately birthed these teenagers’ artistic pursuits.
“These young people didn’t do it because they wanted to be rich or because they thought their graffiti would be in a museum,” Luhrmann told critics. “They were doing it because the world was saying, ‘You don’t exist.’ They were doing it because they were saying, ‘We exist.’”
Watch it today, in other words, and it’s hard to ignore, even 40 years later, the chilling parallel. These are people who are saying that their lives matter.
“We’re telling this story about people in the Bronx who didn’t have a voice, who were made to feel invisible or unheard,” Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who plays club owner Cadillac in the series, told The Daily Beast. “It’s a universal message, and it’s an especially timely one now.”
The mere existence of the show and the fact that Netflix would gamble so much money on this story, he said, “reflects that there’s an appetite to see a world on television that looks like what we see in our daily lives.”
The fact that their characters’ journeys resonate intensely today was not lost on the show’s young actors, especially while they were filming their scenes.
“You guys are catching up,” Shameik Moore, who plays Shaolin Fantastic, told The Daily Beast. “You’re just now getting to know. We’ve been filming this for a year and a half. We've had all the conversations with all the people: Grandmaster Flash, Baz, Nas, Lady Pink, and so forth. Please believe we know the importance of what we’re playing.”
Sitting next to him, Justice Smith, who plays Zeke, nods an emphatic “mhmm” in agreement.
“The pressure could get to us, but I don’t think we had enough time to think about it,” Moore continued. “The whole process is very freestyle.” At the choice of words, Smith nearly lost his shit. “That is so good!” he exclaimed. “That’s exactly what it was and it’s crazy that it coincides with hip-hop.”
In The Get Down’s super-long, super-messy pilot—the show really starts to find itself in subsequent episodes—it’s Smith who gets what is an undeniably powerful moment, one that transcends the messiness that surrounds it.
Zeke’s teacher pulls him aside, chastising him for not reciting a poem that he wrote before his class. The students, Mrs. Green says, need to hear the words that he wrote, and they need to hear them from him.
“Take a look around,” Mrs. Green says. “The Bronx is a war zone. Our community is dying. And it’s going to take leaders to save it. That means you.” You could imagine the same conversation being had in classrooms across the country today.
When Zeke surprises Mrs. Green by passionately, tearfully reciting the poem by heart, it becomes clear why she feels it was so important at that moment. Truthfully, it’s important now.
It’s a visceral echo of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a searing indictment of the media and politicians’ neglect of the black community and their plights and tragedies. And it’s a heartbreaking confession of the emotional toll those things take on a young black person trying to become a man in a society that seems to devalue his and his family’s lives.
Broadly, moments like this in the show underwrite the value of a gamble on a scale of The Get Down, even if the overall result isn’t perfect. Specifically, it’s a piece of writing so powerful that we decided to print it in full here.
Here’s Zeke’s poem:
Boom. Then crash. The shattering of glass. Dive to the floor. Busting my ass. What the hell was that? It was all that I said. I could see the pool of blood. I seen my moms was dead. No emotion in the commotion. I wasn’t even sad. Not even when I learned the bullet was meant for my dad. Vietnam made pops crazy. He was already half-dead. So why couldn’t that have been him that got shot in the head? All the news that’s fit to print. Mama’s death went unreported. Not a whiff of word. They don’t care about us niggas is how my pops explained it. But I didn’t know I was a nigga until my dad proclaimed it. Six months later my pops was dead, too. Drug-related shots fired, his skin turned cold blue. On the news that night the president’s wife got a new hairdo. Newsguy said, I don’t like it, how about you? No word about my pops in the post or on CBS. Why was that, you ask? Take a fucking guess. And yeah, why is that? Is what politicians should be asking. But who’s got time for questions when you all skiing up on Aspen. Broads get gunshots to the head and all y’all getting swerving lessons up in Aspen. My mama was so lovely she would’ve made your head spin. Level the playing field and y’all would see who would really win. And yeah I got anger. But I don’t let it take me down. Because my mama taught me better and she holds me up when I fall down. Rest in peace, moms. Don’t worry about your son. Someday I’ll make you proud because, yeah, I am the one.