One of Netflix’s newest releases, The Get Down, deals with poverty, the South Bronx in 1977, institutional abandonment of Black and brown neighborhoods, and the role a rapidly changing music scene plays in the midst of it all. With direction by Baz Luhrmann, and a cast full of young well-known and newcomer actors of color alike including Jaden Smith, Daveed Diggs, Shameik Moore, Justice Smith, and Herizen Guardiola, the show takes viewers on a ride through the ghetto during one hot summer.
The show is beautiful. If you’ve seen any of his work (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet, etc.), you know that Baz Luhrmann is a genius director. The Get Down only reminded me of how much I love his work. The Bronx is painted in a way that feels beautifully dangerous—it’s a city that is both literally and metaphorically on fire. Luhrmann has figured out a way to seamlessly infuse archival footage of the Bronx in 1977 into the world of the show in a way that is sometimes confusing; what’s real and what’s created isn’t always clear.
Luhrmann uses music as a storytelling medium throughout the show and through it, we see and hear the Bronx change from a war zone to a city of possibilities. Disco’s morphology into hip-hop parallels the main characters’ storylines as they transform out of the rigid roles expected of them into something new, different, and often misunderstood. The symbolic death of disco during the shooting at Les Inferno makes way for new voices to become important both in the music world and in the social world of the Bronx.
At a surface level, nothing seems to be off-limits for The Get Down. One of the main characters is a part-time drug dealer and sex worker who is continuously referred to as “a faggot.” Another character deals with the pressures of wanting to escape a neighborhood that raised him but is currently in ruins. We grapple with the tension between a poverty pimp—someone who deeply cares about his community, but often in ways that are not lawful—versus a government that uses a “ghetto poster boy” to get votes for a community it refuses to actually invest in.
We even get a quick lesson about the queer origins of hip-hop. But that’s just the thing: it’s only a quick lesson. While The Get Down digs deeply into parts of hip-hop’s creation, it simultaneously skims over other parts. I’ve seen the show hailed as the ode to LGBTQ music history that we so desperately want, but is it really?
The only time the show really explores queerness is a short discussion of who controls the music scene at the time. In the late ’70s, the power of the radio diminished, and if someone wanted their song to become popular, the DJs, who were primarily gay men, played them at their clubs. But while we spend the first five (out of six) episodes learning about DJs and B-Boys, we don’t learn that they’re all primarily queer until the season is almost over.
In another moment, Jaden Smith’s character, Dizzie, meets another graffiti artist who brings him to a gay club. In a scene that is a whirlwind of drag queens, disco music, and flashy lighting, we get a glimpse into the queer life of 1970s music culture. But that’s it. The scene happens but isn’t ever mentioned again. Queerness is both vitally important to the creation of this new genre of music (and therefore the storyline of the show) and ignored as an unimportant side-plot. How is that possible?
Even prior to the scene in the gay club, there is an undeniable queer tension throughout the first season of The Get Down. From the first moment two of the main characters, Zeke (Justice Smith) and Shaolin (Shameik Moore), meet each other until the last scene of the finale, I wanted them to kiss. The subtext was there, but overt queerness was not. Instead, Zeke spends his summer in conflict over his love for Mylene (Guardiola) and his new passion as Shaolin’s wordsmith.
And isn’t this what we expected? Queerbaiting, after all, isn’t new. We’ve come to expect to have to write our own queer characters in mainstream television. We get hooked on something small—a smile or a touch—and hope all season that something will come of it. Something rarely does. Even in its recognition of queer culture’s influence on hip-hop and its (almost) canon queer character, Dizzie, The Get Down continues in this tradition. It’s gay enough that straight media can call it progressive, but it’s not gay enough to satisfy our need for real queer content with substance.
Despite this, I want the show to be renewed. In fact, I think it’s important that it does get renewed. This is a story centered around poor Black and Latinx communities, their struggles with institutional abandonment, and their journeys to self-love and empowerment. We don’t see that and I want more. I want another season because there are unanswered questions: Shaolin and Zeke’s relationship, Dizzie’s newly discovered sexualities, and Mylene’s family secrets are just a few of them.
Right now, The Get Down is not queer. Not in any meaningful way. But it is queering the way we watch television. It is putting ugly, unfamiliar things in front of people on their television scenes and juxtaposing that ugliness with catchy dance music. It’s highlighting the chosen family versus the biological one in ways that don’t cast judgment on the choices one makes. It shows the possibilities of the ghetto as a place where people want to live, not just escape. Mixed-race people of color grapple with their identities in ways that don’t equate them to one race or the other. Figuring out right and wrong isn’t as easy as it seems.
I think this show is trying to do a lot more than it can do in six episodes. I’m choosing to be hopeful, to hope that the small signs we got this season will become part of a larger discussion in the next. This show has wings. And, to paraphrase Shaolin, if it’s got wings, it’s got to fly. It’s got the potential to fly and become something important; at once an archive of the intersections of queerness, Black and brown identities, and poverty, and a look at the present and into the future. So here’s to the potential of The Get Down. It’s done so much in one season, I cannot wait to see where else it takes us.