Teen dramedy On My Block, a new series recently released by Netflix, attempts to turn that blueprint on its head by tackling race and poverty with John Hughes 1980s-style humour, and away from the themes of hopelessness found in films like 1991’s Boyz in the Hood.
The 30-minute, 10-episode series is part of a growing number of productions about people of colour in the US. It comes on the heels of the successful Pixar-animated, Oscar-winning movie Coco and the highly successful Marvel Comics’ adaptation of Black Panther. It also comes as more Latino and black advocates are demanding more diversity in productions.
Set in a fictional working-class Latino and black Southern California neighbourhood, the series follows a group of quick-witted teens as they work through typical issues of love and acceptance while doing their best to avoid (and ignore) the gang violence and constant police presence around them.
Yes, the inner-city turbulence is real but it’s not their only concern. How to dress for the school dance or keep a secret sometimes takes priority.
Most of the time, Ruby Martinez, played by Jason Genao, and his friends Monse Finnie, played by Sierra Capri, and Jamal Turner, played by Brett Gray - navigate dating, chemistry exams and sexuality. When they are confronted with violence, they run so they can continue tackling their coming-of-age problems in the comfort of a living room or an outdoor lunch table.
“Don’t look. Keep walking,” Jamal tells the group as they walk by a gang-initiation beating in an alley.
A few minutes later, they are back to discussing typical teen dilemmas. Those problems include Jamal faking injuries to avoid playing football despite his dad’s desires, and Monse later worrying about her secret boyfriend’s link to the gang, Santos. Sometimes, the teens stop and try to guess the calibre of the guns when they hear gunshots.
Eddie Gonzalez, the show’s co-creator, said the series was loosely based on his life growing up in Compton, California.
“Ruby. That was me,” he said. “This is the story of my childhood. I grew up in a large Mexican-American family and a lot of what he’s experiencing I experienced.”
Those struggles included how to share rooms with siblings and dealing with a live-in grandmother, said Gonzalez, who cites 1980s movies Sixteen Candles and The Goonies as his greatest influences.
“When I think of my childhood, it wasn’t bleak and gloomy,” Gonzalez said. “It was filled with a kind of hope. That’s what I wanted to project.”
Genao, who comes from a Dominican-American family in Jersey City, New Jersey, said he was attracted to the show’s writing and could identify with Ruby’s Mexican-American upbringing. “I grew up in a kind of rough neighbourhood, too,” Genao said. “But this show was doing something so different than everything we have seen.”
The creators were combining the innocence of Hughes with the experiences of children living in the inner city, Genao said. “This is not going to be a one-hit wonder.”
Gonzalez said he hoped On My Block did its part to push Hollywood to do more productions featuring people of colour. “We don’t need to be saved,” he said. “We need to be heard.”