How Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States of America has been the topic du jour ever since November 6, 2016, and the discussion won’t be going away anytime soon. Currently, the narrative is occupied by investigations of foreign meddling, but back in 2016, the focus was on the state of the nation and two divisive populations, both fed up for drastically different reasons. Pundits and analysis lobbed plenty of theories at their constituents, but the one that cut through the noise the loudest was of castigation: The majority of white women voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton.
There is some question as to the authenticity of that statistic. The president claims 52% voted for him while the Pew Research Center sets the number of white women votes for Trump at 47%. Numbers schmumbers, talking heads ran with it, attaching “educated” or “affluent” to the statistic and painted a picture many found to be explanatory: In 2016, white women voted for their privilege over their gender.
Statistical explanations like this are absurdly reductive — the number of reasons why an individual votes for this person over that person is countless — yet, a narrative emerged then a movement. And though the much-talked-about Blue Wave of the 2018 elections didn’t exactly manifest with the fervor Democrats hoped for, the message was clear: If you’re not on board, you’re in the way.
What timing Late Night had, premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival just a few weeks after the swearing in of the 116th Congress, the most diverse set of American lawmakers ever elected. Written by Mindy Kaling, who co-stars, and directed by Nisha Ganatra, Late Night garnered immediate attention first for its stellar performance from Emma Thompson as late night talk show host, Katherine Newbury, and second for Late Night’s timely progressive bent.
The story is familiar: Newbury’s ratings are plummeting, and the network wants someone new; someone fresh. Who? Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz), a young, hip standup who also happens to be xenophobic and misogynistic. Those last two traits infuriate Newbury, but they don’t trouble the network executive (Amy Ryan), because of Tennant’s popularity with You Tubers, vapid Instagram models, and the hoi polloi Newbury refuses to touch with a ten-foot-pool. Newbury tasks her head writer, Brad (Denis O’Hare), with hiring a new writer, specifically a woman, to freshen up her image and prove to her staff that she can work with a woman.
Brad finds Molly (Kaling), who works for the chemical company that owns the network’s parent company. Molly is either the first, or the only, woman to apply for the job, and so it’s hers. Her position as a diversity hire quickly becomes a punchline for Newbury, who holds the world — save for her husband, Walter (John Lithgow) — in utter contempt. No one is free of her scorn; not Molly, not her team of writers, and certainly not an American audience that is intellectually beneath her.
Herein lies Late Night’s central problem: Newbury’s standards put her out of touch with the world around her; Molly’s position exists to change that and give her a populist shine. Not because that’s who Newbury is, deep down inside, but because that’s what Late Night needs Newbury to be. There’s an odd cynicism running through Late Night that has less to do with being who you are and more to do with being the person everyone wants to you to be.
And though this cynicism is present, it is more or less steamrolled by the movie’s formulaic approach and its need to express its politics. Newbury’s staff is comprised entirely of white men, all of whom Molly assumes are products of nepotism. Most of them dispel this assumption — no one came to the job by similar means — and several of them turn out to be both competent at their job and open to collaboration with Molly. That all gets shoved aside in the third act when Molly’s insistence on diversity in the workplace is reduced to a flash-forward and a single glad-handing camera track through Newbury’s office. A sea of faces representing every possible walk of life are here, but none are allowed a line of dialogue, or an identity; just representation. A few of the white guys are left standing — the ones the movie spent time getting to know — and, of course, Newbury, who has learned to play ball and appeal to the masses. If she didn’t, her job would be next.