Tuesday, February 28, 2017

REVIEW: 'Switched at Birth' - Iris, Sharee and Chris Stand Up for Their Beliefs in 'Occupy Truth'

Freeform's Switched at Birth - Episode 5.05 "Occupy Truth"

With tensions running at an all-time high, the Black Student Union takes a stand against the university administration until their demands are heard. Iris pledges to continue her hunger strike until the students responsible for a racist display are expelled. Sharee faces the pain of her own past as she tries to gather signatures and rally more students to get involved. Chris is torn between wanting to dazzle several baseball scouts and standing with his fellow students.

Race relations on campus has been a major storyline on Switched at Birth this season. It has largely been defined by Daphne's ignorance on the subject. She may have grown up in East Riverside as a latina but she still has a ton of white privilege. She doesn't know how people of color are seen in the world. She can empathize because she's faced her own kind of discrimination for being deaf. But she can't completely relate to what her friends are dealing with right now. Similarly, the show can only do so much with this story when it's the white characters driving it forward. So, "Occupy Truth" does something very smart in depicting things from the perspectives of the black students. Iris, Sharee and Chris are the major characters of importance in this hour. The rest of the regular cast is largely just supporting whatever those three are up to. That's a welcome change of pace that also allows the show to dig much deeper with this issue. This is their struggle. This is their story. They should be the ones driving it forward. Daphne is supportive but it's ultimately not about her. It's instead about Iris, Sharee and Chris finding their voices on campus and making sure that the administration listens to them.

"Occupy Truth" also does a strong job in showing just how complicated all of this is. The protest has the ability to both unite and separate people. It makes people feel like it's an "us vs. them" situation on campus. But it also leads to fights within the protest over what's the best move forward. It's a complicated take on the subject. It shows that not everyone has the same experience of the world. Is Iris somehow less black because she had a more privileged upbringing in Alaska? Is Keeshawn more problematic because he promotes action against the university? The show does an excellent job in showing that both of these characters have valid concerns. They are both flawed characters. They also have to work together and make sure that their message isn't diluted because of their personal backgrounds. Meanwhile, Sharee has to accept this growing activist side with her need to do well in school and not get kicked out again. It's a lot to juggle in one episode. And yet, the show does so effortlessly while also making sure it gets to the hard truths about how these characters see the world.

With Sharee, everything starts clicking into place once she is able to open up and talk about her personal experiences in dealing with racism. She isn't able to convince many people to sign her petition when it's just an abstract conversation. That makes sense for her considering she doesn't see things as a problem if they don't affect her every day life. Of course, her future is at stake as well since the school administration is just one incident away from kicking her out of the program. She has thrived on this campus thanks to being around friends. However, she's also had to juggle a lot with her schoolwork, work study and her mom. There are moments in this episode where it seems like one of those things will compromise her activism work. Her mom doesn't support what she's doing and she calls right when the students are taking the name off the building honoring a slave owner. If she gets caught for that kind of civil disobedience, it could seriously destroy her career. And yet, she is able to have it all in this episode. She is able to act out in a respectful way while also demanding a better environment for herself and her classmates. Her ideas are what really add fuel to this protest. They don't always work. She's capable of acting irrationally as well. But this episode also highlights what a rousing achievement this is for her.

Meanwhile, it's fascinating to see how far Iris is willing to take her hunger strike. She's the only person at the Black Student Union who is refusing to eat until the administration hears their concerns. That seems slightly problematic. When it's just one student doing that, it doesn't carry much weight. It takes most of the student body speaking out for the president of the university to respond in a positive way to this protest. Perhaps the hunger strike aspect would have been more significant if more of her classmates had joined her in it. She's well-organized and well-articulate. She started this whole protest. She's the face of the movement. She may not be the perfect representative for this cause. But she's standing up for something she believes in. She's inspiring so many people to join. The hunger strike largely just feels like a way to add tension to this overall hour. It doesn't take away anything from the serious issues facing these characters. It's just a little odd. But it also highlights just how passionate Iris really is. She has grown so much as a character since she was first introduced as Daphne's roommate. Now, she's speaking up to force change. These are issues that need to be addressed. The administration is doing nothing and Iris is willing to die for what she believes in. If the university doesn't respect that, it just shows how much deeper these problems actually go.

And then, there is Chris who doesn't want to get involved in all of this because it could jeopardize his career prospects but who turns out to be pivotal to making a difference. It's fascinating to see the show's approach to trying to keep politics and activism out of sports. That's still a very topical issue - like most of the subject matter addressed in "Occupy Truth." Mike doesn't want this talk anywhere in the athletics department because he deems it too distracting for all of the players. That's the environment these people have grown up in. That anything that doesn't have to do with the sport could be a potential risk to a promising career. One false move or statement could destroy their prospects. Chris doesn't want to rock the boat since he has a family counting on him to succeed. And sure, it's a little laughable that his mistreatment by the police here plays as the first time that has happened to him. That's the incident that gets him to change his ways. He was introduced as this cocky player making unreasonable demands because he was a great pitcher. He's the character of importance in this episode that the audience knows the least about. He was introduced just as this story was coming to fruition. But the hour also recognizes the power that sports has in the world. It's only once the athletes refuse to play that the administration takes the Black Student Union's concerns seriously. Chris is responsible for that.

It's also fascinating to see the opposition to all of this as white men in power. That may be an over-simplification of this complicated issue. But it also gets at the idea that the greatest resistance to these genuine concerns come from people in power who have never faced discrimination. That's clearly what the scene with Professor Morello, her boss and a black colleague is about. The white woman and black man understand what the students are feeling and know that the administration should do more to address their concerns. Meanwhile, it's the white man in power who doesn't want to take things seriously. He just wants to hold as much power as possible over the situation. That includes ruining the baseball team's chances at the college world series because he will not be bullied by students. That's such a harsh moment in this hour. It makes it seem like all of this hard work will be for nothing. That only makes it even more rousing when the other teams join in and force the administration to take all of this seriously. It's a victory. And now, it should be fascinating to see how much of this story and these characters will continue to be important as the series heads into its final episodes.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Occupy Truth" was written by Talicia Raggs & Lizzy Weiss and directed by Jeff Byrd.
  • Iris' upbringing is brought up in the first place because it became the focus of her interview with a white male student blogger. Perhaps she should have been more careful with choosing whom to talk with. And yet, that seems like an understandable mistake for her to make since she's still finding her voice as the face of this movement.
  • Regina understands the concerns of Iris and Sharee better than the other main characters. So, it works when she's a key component of Sharee's emotional realization. She's the one who tells her she should be more personal in her appeals to people.
  • Of course, it's also heartbreaking to listen to Regina and Sharee share stories about their first experiences with racism. It's still clearly a systemic part of the world and a challenge beginning at a very young age.
  • John comes across in an unflattering way as well when Chris tells him he's not playing and inspires the rest of the team to do the same. And yet, he's still suppose to be seen as better because he still chooses to stand by his team instead of force them to play like Mike wants him to do.
  • It's Sharee's idea to have the baseball team threaten not to play. She inspires Chris to take action. He's also aggressively flirting with her. Calling her "legs" isn't behavior that should be supported. And yet, I wonder if the show may be positioning them as a couple in the future - same to Iris and Deeshawn who come together in the end as well.