In Late Night, a new comedy written by Mindy Kaling, a senior TV staff writer played by Reid Scott reacts to a recent hire – played by Kaling – with a combination of disgruntlement and disbelief. “I wish I was a woman of colour so I could get any job I want,” he whines to anyone within earshot.
At a recent screening, the audience reacted to the line in a variety of ways. A few women could be heard talking back to the screen, while a few others scoffed knowingly. But just as many viewers sat silently, seemingly unsure of whether the correct response was a belly laugh or an eye roll. Was this guy kidding? Like, kidding kidding?
That uncertainty has been a common feature of the filmgoing experience these past few months, as movies produced in the wake of #MeToo and Time’s Up have folded in, with uneven success, feminist critiques and expressions of “we get it” solidarity.
So far, so woke: two films released in early 2019 – Endgame and Aladdin – proved that their creative teams are down with social progress and understand how audience expectations are changing. But when it comes to humour, the road to enlightenment has been rocky, as viewers find themselves checking their reflexes in real time and having to make split-second judgment calls: Funny? If so, at whose expense? Not funny? If so, is that because it’s offensive, cruel or just hackneyed?