Ramy’ Meditates on the Pitfalls of Self-Righteousness

This piece was originally published for The Atlantic on June 11, 2020

In Season 1 of Ramy, audiences are introduced to Ramy Hassan—the character loosely based on the show’s creator, Ramy Youssef—and his Egyptian American family in northern Jersey. With a formidable mix of surrealism and humor, Youssef explores the complexities of being a religious Millennial man, namely through navigating the difficulties that young Muslims face coming of age post-9/11. Season 2 is anchored in Ramy’s wish to find purpose and direction in his spirituality, but his obsessive need to present a righteous version of himself only sabotages his effort at redemption.

The show is preoccupied with the idea that ritual for ritual’s sake—without deeper consideration of context or circumstances and without disposition of the ego—can often reveal one’s truest, ugliest self. Ramy has returned from a sojourn in Cairo more aimless and prurient than ever before. Back in the States, he engages in gluttony and lewdness (through the haze of a porn-filled laptop screen), and isolates himself in shame. He admits, “I feel like I have this hole inside of me, this emptiness, and I’m always trying to fill it with something.” But once he finally musters up the resolve to return to his mosque after a hiatus, his imam (played by Alok Tewari) meets him with reproach: “Read the last three surahs of the Quran every night,” he says. “It will help keep the shaitan away.” (Shaitan, in Islam, are evil spirits that tempt humans into sinful behavior; their commander, Iblis, is known in Christian texts as Lucifer.)Despondent, Ramy finds his way to the local Sufi center, led by the charismatic Sheikh Ali (Mahershala Ali). Enamored by Ali’s presence and steadiness, Ramy convinces himself that his absolution will come under the approval of the sheikh’s watchful eye.

What ensues is an empty religious performance by Ramy.Desperate to prove that he can ascend to the levels of perfection he associates with the sheikh, Ramy adheres to a rigidity that his loved ones find disconcerting, imposing stringent standards not just on himself, but also on the people around him. When Ramy attends the strip-club bachelor party his friends throw for him, he admonishes one of them, Ahmed, about the optics of the occasion. But Ahmed retorts, “Do you know how many times I’ve watched you do crazy things? Slowly waiting, praying that you’d do the right thing? I never judged you! I just prayed for you.”Ramy’s understanding of discipline is misguided, and his overcompensation and ego leave no room for the inevitability of human error, creating a built-in tension in the show.

Similar to Kanye West and his self-righteous Sunday Service performances, Ramy has understood only the trimmings of deliverance and religion, and has done so in the most self-serving ways possible. For instance, when he wants to encourage a new revert’s adoption into the Sufi center, Ramy fails to disclose that the man was a U.S. soldier in Iraq—responsible for the torture and deaths of Arab and Muslim innocents—and that he has crippling PTSD. As a result, the man is involved in a fatal incident at the Sufi center, for which Ramy is indirectly responsible. In another episode, Ramy translates his adoration of Sheikh Ali into a delusion of romantic love for his daughter. He pursues a relationship with her and then sabotages their imminent nuptials by engaging in infidelity under the guise of religiously sanctioned polygamy—a practice reserved for those who have both the resources and mutually agreed-upon consent.

Ramy’s family members also learn the cruel irony of empty performance. In contrast to Ramy’s capitulations to what he thinks is religious surveillance, his mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), capitulates to a literal agent of surveillance—the United States federal government—in the journey to obtain her citizenship. She studiously reviews her notes for her final exam and absorbs American vernacular. But when she incurs an infraction at her job driving for Lyft that could potentially flag her final background check, she collapses into a panic.

In an effort to determine the complainant, Maysa engages in a frenzied review of her recent passengers, ultimately assuming that a nonbinary customer named Sophia (whom she had misgendered) was the culprit. Unraveled and distraught, Maysa confronts them at a bar, and tries to appeal to their common marginalization as members of two different targeted communities. Maysa’s self-serving plea comes amid her own prejudice—in a previous conversation with her daughter about Sophia, Maysa casually asks, “Allah created him as a man, no?” But in order to protect herself,Maysa exhibits a remarkable inversion of power and imposes the same surveillance tactics on Sophia that she herself fears.

Perhaps the most tragic story within Ramy’s family is that of his uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli)—a boorish, bombastic man who revels in uncompromising bigotry and cartoonish toxic masculinity. The show ultimately reveals that his behavior belies his hidden queer identity; Naseem allows himself to indulge in his sexuality in a few furtive moments, only to then again reclaim his external presentation. He struggles with what kind of Muslim he is supposed to be and what kind of man he is expected to be, which amounts to tremendous overcorrection at the expense of himself and everyone around him.

The last three chapters of the Quran, Surah Al-Ikhlas (“Sincerity”), Surah Al-Falaq (“Dawn”), and Surah Al-Naas (“Mankind”), are commonly invoked in Islam as protection against malevolent surveillance—jinns, shaitan, or the evil eye. The ritualistic performance of these invocations reasserts fealty to God’s will. At the beginning of the season, Ramy dismisses the advice from his imam to invoke these rites, noting that he’s “trying to find God, but it’s not there.” But Sheikh Ali informs him, “If someone only gotthe rules and rituals, they might think Islam is tough and bitter … but there’s an inside, a juicy flesh, a divine intimacy, a spiritual experience. The rind without the flesh is bitter and useless.”

Ramy’s Achilles’ heel is his inability to grasp the journey of restitution via non-egotistical means, and he exercises self-imposed discipline without empathy. Just like his uncle and mother, Ramy is crippled by the perception of the absolute binary of haram and halal—what’s forbidden and what’s permitted—applying its maxims without consideration of the impact they may have on others. It’s a contextual failure that absolves a person of the responsibility of care in pursuit of moral righteousness.

Most Abrahamic religions are peppered with tales of the fallibility of human character: the person you want to be versus the person you are. In Season 2, most of Ramy’s characters are going through this journey; not just in front of God, but in front of their own communities. In trying their hardest to present themselves as the people they want to be, they consistently harm those around them—exposing the worst of who they are in dangerous bursts. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Ramy offers a look into where the road obsessed with perceptions will lead.

#BlackAF Fails to Break New Ground

Originally published for The Atlantic.

What makes good art? This question has dominated entertainment criticism over the past several years—including the deliberation about fairness in evaluating award worthiness at the Emmys, Oscars, and Grammys, and a recent standoff between the director Martin Scorsese and the fandom of the Marvel cinematic universe. In the latter, Scorsese—renowned for his canon of classic films that navigate the fabric of Italian American identity in 20th-century New York—argued that the strongest on-camera stories home in on “the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”

This is the challenge that the Black-ish (and Grown-ish and Mixed-ish) creator, Kenya Barris, is facing in his new Netflix series, #BlackAFBlack-ish, a network TV–friendly caricature of Barris’s own life that debuted in 2014, confronts the realities of being a newly wealthy black family in upper-class white America. The show, helmed by Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, who play the husband-wife duo of Andre “Dre” and Rainbow “Bow” Johnson, gives a comedic peek into some of their “post-racial” anxieties. The first two seasons, in particular, try to analyze layers of race, class, and generational interactions, replete with didactic cutaways, nonverbal signifiers of accomplishment via hyperconsumption, and hand-wringing identity crises.

#BlackAF aims to reframe and expound on Barris’s personal narrative in a more self-aware, satirical context, but it ends up just repeating all the same notes from Black-ish. Without fresh source material, Barris fails to bring new complexity and depth to the ecosystem he has created. He steps into the titular role himself, with Rashida Jones playing his wife, Joya, and tries to create a hyperbolic version of his reality as the wealthy creator of a TV franchise.The difficulty lies, however, in the fact that Anderson’s original character was already a caricature, making the parallel world that Barris inhabits not nearly as much of a distinction. #BlackAF replicates Black-ish’s affinity for pedagogical missives, such as ones explaining Juneteenth, which Barris was already lauded for the first time around. And the new show doubles down on the running barbs about Barris’s distaste for his nuclear family, particularly for his emotionally expressive eldest son (Junior on Black-ish, Pops on #BlackAF).

Audiences are treated to Barris’s version of a Curb Your Enthusiasm pastiche act, wherein the only takeaway he has implemented from Larry David’s cult-favorite show is meanness. Barris seems to have plenty that he would still like to express, some of which is quite comedically articulated, but very little of what he does have to say advances the issues that he has been publicly ruminating over for the past seven years.On Black-ish, for instance,Bow is regularly marginalized by Dre’s family for being a working mom who grew up on a hippie commune. That same casual dismissal of her personhood morphs into the cruel minimization of Joya’s biracial identity on #BlackAF. Despite a strong comedic performance by Jones, Joya’s role is limited to a search for fulfillment and purpose, and contextual examinations of her race are filtered through frivolous conversations about her dancing skills and sartorial choices.

Satire requires a clear definition of the intended audience and the subject of critique—two elements that remain elusive throughout the first season of #BlackAF. If Barris is attempting to highlight the absurdity of engaging in “black excellence” performance politics, he fails on that accord. It’s not clear whether he’s critiquing the inherently flawed premise of analyzing “blackness” solely in its relationship to white supremacy, or whether he’s just capitulating to the “white gaze” of Hollywood. And without an express motive or a fixed frame of reference, it’s difficult to grasp Barris’s target audience.

Satire requires a clear definition of the intended audience and the subject of critique.
Satire requires a clear definition of the intended audience and the subject of critique.

For instance, in the aforementioned Juneteenth episode, titled “still … because of slavery,” there is awell-executed plotlineabout Barris’s inability to contextualize a mixed-media painting he has just acquired. Made by the artist Knowledge Bennett, Strength in Numbers is an immense black canvas punctuated by luminous white stippling. Barris mutters about gentrification, origin stories, and black boxes. But the episode is punctuated byan appearance from Bennett himself, who elucidates the intention behind the painting, stating, “As black people, there’s so many different things, variations of so many different colors. And it’s the sum total of all of these colors that presents blackness in its purest form—in all of its brilliance, all of its splendor.” It’s a genuine moment that would seem to pull the show into sharp focus, but it is quickly undone by Barris’s insistence that he had made the same point as Bennett. As explained by the TV critic Soraya Nadia McDonald, “#BlackAF isn’t a show about blackness, it’s a show about one person’s near-pathological need to keep up appearances.”

In the most ambitious episode, titled “yo, between you and me … this is because of slavery,” Barris tries to assess black art that gets celebrated by mainstream white audiences. He is asked to hold a panel for a “black film” that, on his initial screening, he deems painfully subpar. Barris is upset that his lower-class family members—introduced in the episode to expose his youngest children to more “blackness”—enjoy a project that he finds pedestrian, one that is also being lauded by white critics. Between Barris’s “very black” family, the amorphous white critics of Rotten Tomatoes, and the “bad” film itself, it is difficult to glean exactly what is being indicted. The segment also seems to entirely ignore the fact that black critics exist.

Later in the episode, after lamenting that he’s never won an Emmy for any of his shows, Barris consults with a high council of other creatives such as Will Packer, Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae, Lena Waithe, and Tim Story. In talking with them, Barris confronts the sentiment that he may be resting on his laurels, riding a current “black wave” with projects that appeal to “the hearts and minds of 55-year-old white women.” Instead of delving into his shows’ thematic redundancy, Barris stops just short of examining how artists may participate in the very systems that they would like to dismantle.

There is nothing wrong with Barris’s work being informed by his particular point of view and experience. In fact, these things can enrich one’s storytelling over the course of one’s creative career. Scorsese has said that “the most personal is the most creative,” words the Parasite director, Bong Joon Ho, honored when accepting the 2020 Oscar for Best Picture. Since the debut of Black-ish, however, Barris has not found new ways to examine himself and his family within the fictive universe he’s created. He seeks to break ground with more contemporary and meaningful discussions in #BlackAF, but they mostly peter out before they have a chance of landing effectively.

The late literary critic Cheryl A. Wall wrote, “Whatever the issues [writers] confront or the questions they puzzle through, they engage, directly or indirectly, the examples of writers before them who used the essay to focus attention on political controversies, to shape aesthetic debates, and to create a space for personal recollection and philosophical reflection.” A show with a title as weighty as #BlackAF should engage in incisive thinking. It’s a difficult exercise, but the payoff would be immeasurable—and that would be the satire I would gladly tune in to.