Thoughts On Zero | The First Netflix Series With A Black Italian Cast

Four Black Italians—Ark, Gaylor, Naomi and Griot Founder and Artistic Director Johanne—discuss the highly anticipated new Netflix series. Despite some criticisms, all agree that Zero is a game-changer for Italy’s cultural production.

by Johanne Affricot - Published on 04/05/2021
From the left: Johanne Affricot, Naomi Kelechi Di Meo, Gaylor Mangumbu, Ark Jospeh Ndulue. COURTESY

Loosely based on Antonio Dikele Di Stefano’s Novel Non ho mai avuto la mia etàI Never Had My Age—, Zero recounts the story of Omar / Zero (Giuseppe Dave Seke), a shy young manga artist who lives in Milan with his sister Awa (Viriginia Diop) and his father Thierno (Alex Van Damme). At night, he works as a delivery guy for the neighbourhood’s pizzeria.  During one of his shifts, a series of unfortunate events lead up to him being chased by a group of people and having to seek shelter inside an abandoned building where, by chance, he discovers he has a special power: he can become invisible any time he feels strong emotions. In a surprising turn of events, he will later become friends with the guy that chased him (Sharif, Haroun Fall) and his friends (Sara, Daniela Scattolin; Momo, Dylan Magon; Inno, Madior Fall). Together they’ll embark on the mission of defending their neighbourhood from degradation. In the background, the love story between Zero and Anna (Beatrice Grannò) and the struggle to save not only the Barrio (the neighbourhood), but also themselves plays out.

The cast of Zero. From the top left: Dylan Magon, Virginia Diop, Daniela Scattolin, Beatrice Grannò, Haroun Fall, Giuseppe Dave Seke, Madior Fall

I liked Zero for various reasons. The cast, composed mainly of Black Italian actors and actresses is probably the main reason that prompted many to watch it given how deeply-rooted and violent the underrepresentation and stereotyping of Black people on Italian TV (state and private) is. Another positive aspect in the series is the concept of invisibility and the multifaceted facets it assumes, as well as the power of the super hero. But there is also the “mystical” or “spiritual” frame that runs through all eight episodes, taking on more defined contours in the last few episodes. And the soundtrack of course.

Rather than uncritically praising it, I met up with Naomi, Ark and Gaylor to share thoughts and reflections on a cultural product that for all of us—we agreed as soon as we started talking—has changed the lives of many “for better or … better”, even if the effects are not materially or culturally perceptible immediately. However, for every step forward, Italian media prefer to project Black people/Afroitalians into a narrative that reassures a certain majority. In their view, we should passively accept— and smile and about—being referred to with the N-word on prime time TV, or in any other time slot.

“A lot of people think that racism is only present in the United States and not in Italy,” Naomi, Media and Information Technology student begins. “They know nothing of Italian colonial history and of its continuity with today’s racism. And if you happen to live through and report an episode of discrimination, maybe they’ll tell you: ‘I’m sorry, the guy is old, he will soon die, be patient.’ The End. Show time over. Antonio [Dikele Distefano] did well not to remark on it too much, and to include an audience that would have probably given up watching the series if faced with a very harsh reality. I appreciated the subtle way in which they talked about racism. All the microaggressions present in Zero, from Inno’s denied citizenship, to the fascist football coach who insults him. As people who suffer from them we immediately recognise their depth, because it is something that accompanies us every day, as if it were a ghost. So that’s okay, it has been talked about. But I think that in a second season, they should have more space for in-depth analysis.”

Among the comments read online or shared by Afro-Italian friends and acquaintances, Ark contends, “there are those who turned up their noses because of the little space given to racism and the issue of Italian citizenship, believing that Zero could and should be an opportunity for a wider condemnation. On the other hand, there are people who appreciated the decision to put these themes at the margins of the plot, and others who criticised its presence given that it is a semi-science fiction series. However, I also appreciated how these issues were handled, expanding the narrative to other themes that are more universal and that go beyond skin-colour: financial struggles, family friction, the absence of a parent and problems with the justice system. I think they are all elements that help to feel more empathy,” he adds.

In a society where our identities have been fabricated according to colonial schemes and categorisations, and where mass education is filtered through television programming, a series that does not flatten our experience to only one dimension is a turning point that I have been waiting for some time. In fact Zero has  succeeded in normalising our bodies and presence in Italy, intertwining these with social issues such as gentrification, citizenship, racism and the role of women.

“There isn’t much of a debate around gentrification. It is a phenomenon that affects not only the United States or major European cities, but also Italy,”Naomi continues. “People who belong to more marginalised and vulnerable social groups, such as immigrants or people with less economic resources, are kicked out of neighbourhoods to house a social elite which responds to certain aesthetic standards, and which is guaranteed beautiful and more adequate infrastructure and services. The ghettoisation of the other is always around the corner.”

Ark, a law student from Castel Volturno, adds another element to the discussion: “I lived in New York for about four months and in that period I walked the runway for Pyer Moss. In 2018 he presented his collection not in rich Manhattan, but in the neighbourhood where he grew up, Brooklyn, near East Flatbush. During the show, the message he shared was: ‘Guys, we must give value to the neighbourhood, to the people of the neighbourhood’. This, to reconnect with the series, can be linked to a larger theme: progress. Who are the recipients of progress? When there is development, when resources are invested, it is thought that everyone will benefit from it, but in reality this is not the case. The last are left behind, as Giovanni Verga reminds us in La Fiumana del Progresso.”

But who are the last ones? This is where belonging, as well as social class, comes into play in a game of narrative levels that merge throughout the plot. Of course, these are more subliminal “prompts”, but they are present. If it is true that the protagonists of Zero are the Italian youth of the present, the sons and daughters of Africa and its diaspora, it is also true that the  crossroads between Italy “proper” and the (undefined) Italy of second generations is the neighbourhood, the suburbs. Belonging to a neighbourhood crosses the borders of the nation, of origins, of colour, and it is revealed in the form of a felt and shared feeling: the attachment to one’s place of identity, formation and socialisation.

“The boys recognise themselves in the Barrio, that is their home. They belong to that territory, even before belonging to their origins. I haven’t had the same luck, I haven’t had this attachment. As soon as I could, I left Desenzano del Garda,” continues Naomi. “And I liked how it was put into the series. Here’s to all those who say: ‘you do not recognise Italy as your home’, or, ‘this is not your home’. In the series we have second generation people who defend their home, the neighbourhood. They work there, and give life to the neighbourhood.”

The decision to make each episode last 25 minutes is one of Zero’s weak points. Jumps between the scenes and dialogues are swift, a structure that often does not do justice to the characters. Yet, all have succeeded in coming across in a credible and engaging way. “The work must be read as a whole, especially with regard to the younger generations. A Black 12-13 year attending middle school, perhaps as the only Black person in the class can now find a product on the screen that represents them aesthetically. Furthermore, the series used different directors for each episode [four in total: Paola Randi, Mohamed Hossameldin, Margherita Ferri, Ivan Silvestrini] which rarely happens. It is positive because changing one’s point of view colours the narration positively” Gaylor suggests.

“I don’t have a favorite character. I like the crew. I believe this was the intention of the producers to make the group stand out. The individual characters are not developed. Perhaps Omar was developed a little more, because he is the protagonist, but it is only towards the end that we begin to see elements about his personal story, about what happened to his mother. I took this first season more as a presentation, because it’s basically that: the first season of other seasons,” says Ark.

We all agree that Sara’s character sends an important signal. “Sara is a young independent woman who has her own recording studio and is the leader of the group. She is not presented in a stereotypical way as often happens in certain TV series. She is not the silent woman, or the woman who screams or who gets pregnant. So when I saw her, represented in that way, thinking about how the series (especially the American ones) relegate the role of Black women to certain social contexts, I thought: finally!” Naomi adds.

“I liked Sara a lot too. I grew up among women—my sisters—and my mother is my shero,” Gaylor admits. “She is also a dark-skinned Black girl with braids. Wow! But her guiding role among so many men is an important, transversal message that reflects the role of women in Italian society. We live in a sexist country. We are older and we have a certain degree of awareness, but imagine a girl who attends middle school or high school, who sees herself in that position: in my opinion a very powerful thing is triggered. It increases self-esteem so much,” he concludes. “That’s right guys! Besides, she never wears a wig,” Naomi points out. “Except when she goes to the casino,” Ark adds.

Every aspect is analysed. Elements that are not given much depth in the series are reflected in the biographies of many generations of Black people even beyond Italy. Despite the generational gap between Gaylor and I (both born in the early 80s), and Naomi and Ark (born in the late 90s), we find ourselves sharing the same reactions we would have had if we had seen a similar series in our early adolescence, combined with what we feel today. “If this had been available when I was 12-15 years old, I would have felt like a part of this country, in every sense. Today’s me agrees, going back to what Ark said earlier, that this is a beginning: it is a brick that I hope will become an amazing building,” says Gaylor.

“The 12-13 year-old me would have been delighted to see a Black and Italian super hero. The 16-year-old me, who was studying acting, would have been equally happy, because he would have witnessed change, the emergence of a new, more inclusive art market, with Afro-descendant Italian actors who can do it. Today’s me is happy, because I see that things are changing. But that’s just the beginning. It can go well, but it can also go wrong. As Gaylor said, it’s a brick, let’s see what the house will look like,” Ark argues.

When the promo with an all Afro-Italian cast came out, Naomi cried: “I never cry, but seeing that video broke my heart. I saw my friends, like Tommy [Kuti], who I grew up with. I remember when he used to do live shows in Castiglione delle Stiviere’s public library and there were only a few people. Seeing him there like this, in that position, everything made sense, even my own life. Before, I was never taken into consideration, and I would never have had the ambition and aspirations that I have now. Today I know that if I want to do something I can do it. It is this realisation that made me cry so much, because I had to relive some trauma. If at 12 somebody had told me: ‘Look, Zero is coming out soon’, I would have laughed, I would not have believed it. To conclude, the young me would have done everything to be able to have and see Zero, and I am very happy that my cousins ​​now have it. And that when they go to school they can also dress up as this Italian super hero, Black. Now I am happy because I know that I will be able to see Italian friends with other backgrounds, or even people I don’t know, do whatever the fuck they want, not give up their dreams, their ambitions. You can do whatever you want, and it is important to lead the way. This is Zero: it is 8% of so much more. It’s up to us to build the rest.”

The “rest” is already being built by Naomi, as well as Ark, Gaylor, myself and so many other people out there. The awareness of the existence of this multitude that belongs to the different generations of a plural Italy, is a relief that partially erases the horrible conditions to which the mainstream would like to confine us, and it is a push to look forward. There is a lot of work to do, but today we have Zero: a mainstream response to start from that was co-written by an Angolan-Italian author, Antonio Dikele Distefano, and with a stellar Black cast that I will never stop thanking for what they have given us.

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Visual and performing arts, culture and music, traveling. I could just live on this. Culture curator, curiosity is my daily bread. With a love for food, do not ever try to take the last bite off my plate: I could bite back.