Netflix’s Zero reflects a striking array of struggles, passions and personalities that form part of the Black Italian experience. The main characters of this fast-paced, incredibly fun Netflix superhero show are a group of second-generation immigrant kids whose parents came from a variety of places – Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal among them. The story is based on the novels by Antonio Dikele Distefano, which are described in this New York Times article as “throwing light on the lives of young people, the children of immigrants, who are not considered citizens even when they are born in Italy, speak the language and share the same cultural references.”
Zero tells a story of defining and defending home. Our protagonist, Omar, is a lonely boy who loves drawing comics and desperately wants to leave the city – until he meets these new friends in two very surprising moments. We watch Omar fall in star-crossed love and be forced to confront Italy’s class differences, transforming into his superhero self: Zero, a force against the violent gentrification and discrimination his community faces. “They were born and raised there [The Barrio]. They stayed there because they have to protect it. Because it’s being attacked, very much so. By very dangerous people.” Bigger than that, Zero gives us the gift of seeing vibrant, gorgeous, joyous, fierce, creative Black kids as stars of their neighbourhood and on screen.
I am totally in awe of the writing on this show. Each character is so vastly, clearly their own, so well defined —and seemingly effortlessly! The Barrio crew is portrayed by an ensemble cast of Black Italian actors discovered through an open call: Omar, whose passion is drawing manga featuring Black characters – most notably, Zero, a hero version of himself. Music producer and level-headed queen, Sara, who runs a local recording studio. Rapper and absolute delight, Momo. Sharriff, the heart-of-gold hustler who recruited Omar to join their crew and save the Barrio. And Inno, a professional soccer player who is struggling to get his citizenship papers. It’s never obvious how, but at any point in the show you could draw up a full identity of any of the characters: We know their motivations, their passions, their fears, and the script is continuously building on that. It’s spectacular.
This Netflix show is very much filled with ‘steal from the rich give to the poor’ vibes. It’s a real adventure of young people coming together to save their community, while uncovering the truths behind the many organisations and schemes working to drive them out of the Barrio, a home for so many who can’t afford to move. The plot provides the typical comic book superhero feel of self-discovery; of teenagedom being interrupted by a crush, a boisterous new group of friends, and a crisis at home all at once. This diverse and motivated crew works together to understand Zero’s powers, to train his skills, to teach themselves poker in order to perform a heist. It’s so much fun!
I am so fascinated by the decisions on world building in Zero: In the show, Zero’s vision is depicted as black and white when he is looking out at the world while invisible. Cameras crash when they film him turning invisible, and regular people can’t hear him speak when they can’t see him. And there’s the hilarious detail that Zero covers Anna’s eyes while they’re having sex because he’s suddenly turning invisible as he comes. (His powers are related to strong emotions). Each episode’s title slide is a play on invisible text, which is really smart and clean and cool; I neeed a tumblr edit putting them together ASAP. All the music is awesome, badass, beautiful, sensual, powerful – and from what I can tell it’s all either local or from the diaspora. It’s a fantastic, eclectic, multi-lingual soundtrack I’d love to know more details about. For now, I’ll keep dancing to it.
Zero gives us a refreshing combination of powerful, heavy moments with stunning emotional acting, and comedic moments that provide brilliant, striking reprieves of genuine laughter. There’s also so much Black joy in the moments of victory or togetherness depicted between the crew! In the same NY Times article linked above, it’s mentioned that the cast stayed together in a hotel when lockdown was enforced and filming was delayed. That shared experience has created a sense of camaraderie that you can truly feel in moments when they break into jubilation —whether they’re vandalising a billboard or dancing together next to a beheaded statue.
“They piss on our heads and tell us it’s raining.” Zero does not shy away from the horrifying truth of the racial and xenophobic discrimination that is strong in Italy, nor from the universal truth of police generally being trash. The show strikes a wonderful, deliberate balance in providing context, motivation, creating conflict and depicting the wild beauty of Black joy and celebration in between. I did not find the moments of pain unbearable, though I did have to skip past the scene where a man urinates on a homeless man’s face during an act of vandalism. As Omar moves through the world, particularly when he starts moving in upper-class circles with his white, privileged girlfriend, we’re shown several familiar moments of the Black experience: When you’re the only Black person at a party and people assume you’re the dealer. Having your name on the list for a party but the hostess not even considering checking the VIP list (because you’re Black).
There’s definitely more of Zero to come, with allllll the backstory they had just peaking through right until the very end! I suspect (and hope) something like they’re doing with part two of Lupin is coming soon. The ending had the most shocking final line and a reveal that really shows these eight episodes have only scratched the surface of what there is to uncover about the Zero world. I can’t wait!
Content warnings: xenophobia. Episode 4: a kid stuck in a hot car in a flashback (not fatal or intentional, mom is taken away by police). Tumultuous relationship with parents. A character begins to suffer mysterious vision loss. Death of a side character. Undercurrent that his mother’s mental health was justification for arrest. Episode 8: kidnapping, accidental suicide by falling.
If you like Zero…
The Get Down (Netflix)
Black and Latinx kids fighting against a system rigged against them, trying to follow their heart and achieve their parents’ dreams for themselves and their own plans, all while politicians and local criminal groups are working against their hopes. The Get Down tells the real history of the Bronx, and of Grandmaster Flash. Featuring Justice Smith, Jaden Smith, Shameik Moore, Nas, and Herizen F. Guardiola, who you may know from Dare. There’s a queer romance plot, inspiring street art, a killer Original soundtrack, and costumes that will have a hold on your heart forever.
Invincible (Prime Video)
This is a superhero show where Mark is trying to finish high school, date a girl (Zazie Beets) while also navigating his newly-developed superpowers and pressure from his father to honour his family in a very prescriptive and particular way. Mark is biracial (voiced by Steven Yeun, his mom voiced by Sandra Oh). His best friend is gay (voiced by Andrew from Girls) and the latest episode is all about his boyfriend. The hip-hop music in this show is so damn cool, as is the endless stream of edgy humor and throwaway lines that are just GLORIOUS. It’s violent, modern, badass action that will make you laugh out loud while also cringing in the middle of bloody battle scenes.
When the Zero crew graffiti the billboard of the real estate agency and when white people started to come look at properties it reminded me of Vida. It’s a show made by the community it represents, showcasing their talent, drive and diversity. The Vida community, like in Zero, are a gorgeous, talented group of artists and activists. This show tells the story of a queer Latinx community dealing with their grief, gentrification, and their own family drama. The protagonists are also in an interesting spot: They left the community to live in LA, and now they return home somewhat shunned, and a quick visit turns into a miraculous, chaotic chance to start fresh.
Indigenous young people fighting for their land, extremely trippy and sometimes gruesome scenes, an almost entirely Indigenous cast and crew, Trickster is a Canadian show about a young man with a supernatural gift and family history he can’t even begin to understand or know. Based on the Son of a Trickster novels by Eden Robinson, Trickster‘s protagonist is Jared, and his world is kinda coming apart at the seams as all the magic swoops in on him. The cinematography is this show is beyond, and the main character is played by Joel Oulette, who is a wonder, an absolute gem of an actor. I wrote about the show here.