As places go, Iowa City is well-known for its liberal atmosphere and for good reason. Compared with much of the state — and the country — Iowa City is a surprisingly blue area for its size and location. It is easy to overlook our blind spots, especially when trying to focus on the progress we have made as a community. But those blind spots exist, and they’re hurtful for those who feel invisible in them.
Recently, FilmScene played Late Night, directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by Mindy Kaling. The movie screamed woke-liberal dream: written and directed by women of color, starring women, about women. A friend and I went to see it around its Iowa City release, and we came out of the movie wondering if we’d seen a different movie from everyone else in the theater.
The audience, a sizable Friday night crowd, was openly thrilled with the movie, laughing heavily while my friend and I sat in the back, confused. To us, Late Night was the playbook of the faults of the neoliberalism that surrounds us here.
Late Night is a story for the times, or at least that’s what it’s marketed as. We, as the audience, are told that Kaling’s character, a funny wanna-be comedy writer, represents us, that she is the empowered woman we need to see. Yet the movie revolves around her being an openly a diversity hiring with no qualifications — a gag that’s supposed to target the industry for its racism but instead makes me question the internal rhetoric of the movie. Are we supposed to identify with a gag, and if so, what does that say about us?
The film surrounds itself in a veneer of wokeness but falls into the same vaguely homophobic, racist, and sexist plotlines, just masqueraded enough that liberal audiences can laugh and still feel good about where they’re putting their money. Late Night was made for the “SNL” crowd, for people who think being “self-aware” is permission to say whatever they want. It’s Iowa City in that it appeals to the base level of social consciousness without giving any time to critically consider or question what it is we’re actually saying.
I don’t know what I was supposed to get out of Late Night. Instead of laughing with the movie, I felt somewhat sidelined as someone who isn’t white and isn’t straight. It ends with a reaffirmation of everything it began with — the growth in the characters has nothing to do with growing as people but instead as producers. They win by making the most marketable humor, capitalizing on reproductive issues and ageism in the industry — characters don’t change their ways, they don’t become people who listen to others for their own sake. The character with a disability, whose arc surrounds his sadness over not being seen or heard, is forgotten about entirely, completely invisible.
No one in the movie is willing to listen to another person because it is the right thing to do. Only marketability matters.
Iowa City feels, in many ways, like the same thing. People listen not because they want to hear from you and make you feel heard, but because it looks good. Optics and marketability matter over voices. Businesses capitalize on your well-being and your identity to look good in a community that values appearance. We use compostable cups because it looks good. We put up Pride flags because it looks good. We make Twitter threads because it looks good.
Late Night wasn’t even an objectively bad movie, but it was hard to watch people enjoy it so happily when I know it barely scratches the surfaces of the issues or even perpetuates those issues in its own ways. Iowa City has the same problems to work out, but we aren’t willing to see that. Our activism needs work, and with that, we need to stop seeing ourselves as an inalienable beacon of virtues and think about whether we are listening to the people we claim to help.