On August 25, 1959, jazz legend Miles Davis was in between sets at Birdland. While having a smoke outside the famed Manhattan jazz club with a young white woman, he was approached by a cop and told to “move on.” He chose not to. “The officer decided to arrest him, a physical struggle ensued, and three detectives joined in and began beating Davis.”
While New York City of the late ‘50s was relatively enlightened compared to the Jim Crow South, racism was very much alive and enforced in a multitude of ways, legal and extra-legal, as demonstrated by the arrest and beating of Miles Davis on that hot summer night.
What responsibility do we have to history when creating period fiction? Can escapism ever really escape it all? My mind kept coming back to Miles Davis and the problems of our ugly history while watching the breakout hit The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
By now you’ve probably heard about, if not binged, all eight episodes of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s period porn adora-com. Buzz for the show is only increasing since Maisel, and its breakout star Rachel Brosnahan, won two Golden Globes.
Full disclosure: I didn’t like Gilmore Girls. Sherman-Palladino’s trademark rat a tat tat, clever people talk makes me itch. Fuller disclosure: I’m a brassy New York Jewess obsessed with the Golden Age of Jewish stand-up. I really wanted to love Mrs. Maisel.
Spoiler: I didn’t.
Mrs. Maisel takes place in a supersaturated fantasy 1958 New York, one where anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, and even sexism are barely a whisper. As Kara Baskin puts it, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Is Too Perfect.” “Midge is thoroughly unencumbered by reality even while her comedy routine depends on it.” For many, however, including Baskin, therein lies the charm.
For me, Mrs. Maisel was one big “Sisko in the Holosuite” moment. For the non-Trekkies among us, I’m referring to the Deep Space Nine episode “Badda-Bing Badda-Bang.” Benjamin Sisko is the African-American captain of a remote space station called Deep Space Nine. In this particular episode, Sisko has refused to join his friends in a popular Las Vegas circa 1962 simulation. In that time and place, he protests, “Black people weren’t very welcome… Sure, they could be performers, or janitors. But customers? Never.” Vic’s Place, the holographic casino, is a lie Sisko can’t get past.
My discomfort with Maisel was cemented in episode three. Because Midge Maisel is indeed marvelous, as soon as she decides to become a comic she is taken under the wing of none other than Lenny Bruce. In the third episode (“Because You Left”) Midge joins Bruce at the Village Vanguard. He’s the emcee for an African American jazz group. In between sets, the jazz musicians, Bruce, and Midge go outside the club to share a joint. Bruce and the musicians compare their rap sheets. Midge pipes up with her arrest record, wowing the men and proving her bona fides. Suitably impressed (and stoned), the gang goes back inside where Midge, subbing for the now incapacitated Bruce, kills (of course).
Remember, in the real 1959, Miles Davis was savagely beaten for having a cigarette with a white woman. In Maisel, black men are props on Midge’s journey, there to affirm her cred and give her an opportunity to work on her act. Sure, the musicians complain about racial profiling, but hey, Midge is a victim, too, having been dragged off stage by the police during her first raucous appearance at the Gaslight Cafe. We’re meant to empathize with the group as a whole — bohemian underdogs (jazz musicians and edgy comics) harassed by the Man. That the stakes were vastly different for black and white underdogs is politely waved away. In reality, being with Midge in public (while using illicit drugs) could literally put those musicians’ lives in danger, a fact far too inconvenient and un-marvelous for Mrs. Maisel.
By the late 1950s legal segregation was not as much of an issue in New York as it was in the South. But while establishments couldn’t refuse non-white customers, they could make the experience unpleasant. “Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, black New Yorkers described discrimination in public accommodations, including restaurants in all of the city’s boroughs.” That often meant being seated near the kitchen or in the back by the bathrooms. At Mrs. Maisel’s Village Vanguard, the creators make a point of showing us an integrated audience; indeed, there are African-American patrons seated right up front. It’s a reassuring fantasy of hip, integrated mid-century New York, perfect for the frazzled, fractured viewer of 2018. But how are we to read such a fantasy?
And what of Ben Sisko and his refusal to whitewash the past, no matter how entertaining? In the end, Sisko does go to Vic’s, participating in a thoroughly charming Trek take on a classic casino heist caper. What changes his mind? Perhaps it’s this speech from his partner Kasidy Yates: “Going to Vic’s isn’t going to make us forget who we are or where we came from. What it does is remind us we are no longer bound by any limitations. Except the ones we impose on ourselves.”
The problem is that on Deep Space Nine, Ben Sisko is the one who decides to rewrite history, placing himself, and black subjectivity, at the center of the story. That’s cathartic, empowering fun. Merely lowering the stakes for its African-American (and queer and female, but that’s for another time) characters, as Mrs. Maisel does, while relegating them to supportive, colorful caricatures, is a disappointing lie I can’t get past.