Netflix 'On My Block' hits race, poverty with teen humor
By RUSSELL CONTRERAS
Apr. 05, 2018
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Film and television productions about the inner city typically follow the same formula: life is depressing, addicts lurk at every corner and students can barely do homework without ducking to the rat-a-tat-tat of drive-by bullets.
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 humor and away from the themes of hopelessness found in films like 1991's "Boyz n the Hood."
The 30-minute, 10-episode series is part of a growing number of productions about people of color in the United States. 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 neighborhood, 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 freshman 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-initiating beating in an alley. "Why would anybody get jumped into 19th Street (gang)?"
"Agreed. Who wants a lifetime commitment at our age?" Ruby asks.
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 caliber of the guns when they hear gunshots.
Eddie Gonzalez, the show's co-creator, said the series is loosely based on his life growing up in Compton, California. "Ruby. That was me," Gonzalez 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 include 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 immediately attracted to the show's writing and could identify with Ruby's Mexican-American upbringing. "I grew up in a kind of rough neighborhood, 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 hopes "On My Block" does its part to push Hollywood to do more productions featuring people of color. "We don't need to be saved," he said. "We need to be heard."
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP's race and ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras