“The Night Of” is an HBO true-crime miniseries about a man convicted for murder. The show aired this past summer and is a conventional setup executed in a nonconventional manner. The series manages to be a non-dramatized drama. It is a procedural that unravels slowly but surely to accurately indicate the slow wheels of justice. Organized into eight chapters, “The Night Of” presents an underdog story where the underdog’s innocence is increasingly being questioned by everyone, including the underdog himself. Its narration, clouded by bias and circumstance, gives us a legal saga that accounts for how humanity’s flaws do not always fit with the calculative judicial system. Societal issues such as race, drug use and sexuality heightens the show’s underlying conversation about the sticky web of law.
Slow-burning, yet compelling, “The Night Of” refuses to cover up the gritty details of a life held in the balance by the court of law. The visual and aural effects play with the senses, causing a feeling of true immersion into the character’s perspective. The cinematography encapsulates an icy, removed quality to their depiction of the prison system, sterilely injected with procedural apathy. The filming captures both the surreal and the hyper-real stylistic aspects of the show. Riz Ahmed, playing the lead role of suspect Nasir Khan, succeeds in capturing the essence of a man broken and lost by circumstance. John Turturro brings us a unique character – the eccentric and disreputable defense lawyer John Stone – who dives deep into the convoluted, over-his-head trial. His deep New York accent, bizarre foot condition and nonchalant banter injects comedy into this otherwise heavy drama.
Ultimately, the series is intent on illustrating every ugly aspect that incrimination brings, despite being genuinely innocent or guilty. Once Nasir is arrested and the trial publicized, everything in his life is turned on its head. Free will is immediately snatched away ever since the fateful night of the murder. The plot plunges into the detriments of the crime through the lens of his family. The media preys on his parents, locals throw bricks through their windows and spray paint racial slurs, his mother is forced to become a janitor and father to be a delivery man (because his taxi was involved in the incident) and they sell their valuables to keep their finances afloat. Meanwhile, Nasir learns from both in and out of prison to “look, but don’t look anybody in the eye.” This simple yet complex suggestion highlights how every move can be dissected and used against him by the media, the courtroom not to mention inside prison. His status as a possible rapist and murderer makes him an instant target in the brutal prison system. The prison politics of alliances and enemies make it hard to watch without gritting your teeth. Nasir plummets farther away from the innocent man he once was. The “good boy” status that seemed to be his one hail mary in court disappears physically and mentally as he learns to survive in the convoluted hierarchy of the prison food chain. As he shaves his head, gets tattoos, beats up prisoners and smuggles drugs, there is a noticeable emptiness in his eyes that once was not there. If Nasir was not a criminal to begin with, prison may transform him into a criminal in the end.
“The Night Of” narrative questions if the justice system, that so often produces wrongly convicted criminals, does more harm than good. What is truly right and wrong and according to who? These philosophical subtexts are the silver linings to this dark cloud of a series. Nasir’s mom is eventually driven to question the morals of her son, uttering “An animal did that. Did I raise an animal?” and at times Nasir begins to question himself. The ending feels slightly innocuous considering the previous episodes propelling intensity. The show has moments that are dry, morbid and slow and some loose knots are never fully tied after the final credits role. Despite the show’s lulls that lose its momentum it is hard to ignore the profound message it holds. The show sets out to expose the cracks in the foundations of our justice system that crumple from lack of humanity.