netflix's 'on my block' is a joyful look at inner city life
Set in South LA, the sitcom feels like 'Moesha' meets 'Degrassi'.
Courtesy of Netflix
Netflix’s newest show, On My Block, feels like the diverse teen show Issa Rae was demanding when she pointed out that “Not since Moesha have we followed the lives of black teens.” Set in South Central LA, the dramedy sees four friends navigate teen crushes, overbearing parents, partying, and also the threat of gang violence. The show sets itself apart by illustrating the full spectrum of inner city life, not just the bad stuff, and pays overdue attention in particular to the neighborhood’s joy.
The main cast of On My Block consists entirely of people of color, purposefully going against stereotypes. Jamal, for example, is a sports-hating black teen struggling with telling his dad he doesn’t want to play football. One of the show’s most hilarious scenes is when Jamal rolls around in grass and sprays water on his face, so his dad will think he went to football tryouts.
Here, the cast of On My Block talks to i-D about what it means to star in the first coming of age Netflix sitcom to focus on people of color.
Tell me a little bit about your characters. How will we get to watch them grow?
Diego Tinoco: The characters are all book smart and street smart and have these grand plans of going to college and moving away. But then their entire universe does a 360 when my character’s brother is released from prison. He completely destroy all the plans Caesar has and gets me involved in a gang. Thankfully, I have three best friends who try to get me out. Oh… and there’s also a love triangle.
Sierra Capri: I think at first glance Monse seems really tough, but deep down she wants love and compassion. Eventually Caesar breaks her shell and allows her to open up and feel things she didn’t think she could.
Brett Gray: I think Jamal is fun because he’s sort of the one everything happens to. He has all of the horrible experiences and gets into all the craziness. It was fun of being on the opposite spectrum of “the cool one” —
Sierra: — Jamal is the fallback friend! We find a way to blame him for everything even if it has nothing to do with him.
Brett: Yeah, he is the fallback friend. At the end of the day, he gonna be alright though! [Laughs] I’m not gonna tell y’all what happens. He was a little hard to play because he’s so crazy. I couldn’t really find the balance of how do I become crazy but also remain human? I got it after a while.
Jason Genao: I felt for Ruby, but then, at the same time, I got so much inspiration from him. He has all these things that normally wouldn’t allow someone to get so far in life. He talks too much and he knows way too much for his own good. He feels like being short can’t get him where he wants to go. Throughout the season, Ruby is all about the ladies. We watch him finally get a girl and things start to work out for him.
Finding confidence seems to be the theme of the show. Netflix has released a lot of coming of age shows recently, like 13 Reasons Why and End of the Fucking World recently. How does yours stand out?
Brett: I think we bring the color.
Diego: And not just in front of the screen, but also behind the screen. The whole crew is diverse. We had Asian directors and Latino writers and producers. It’s really authentic.
Brett: I feel like a lot of shows are super concept-based, like: Here’s aliens! But our show is really just down-to-earth.
Jason: A lot of shows will add people of color, but they won’t tell their stories correctly. The stories about Hispanic people in this show are so true. The grandma who is a little bit crazy about religion. I got two of those!
Sierra: We were talking about this earlier. About how we’re all interracial main characters on a show. That alone people will appreciate.
How did you bond as a group?
Diego: From the start!
Jason: Yeah, we didn’t have a choice but to! None of us are from California, so when we got there we decided we were going to live together. Well — except Diego.
Diego: I drove them all around!
Jason: We all asked him to live with us.
Brett: But he has his own apartment.
Diego: We were literally driving up this big ole’ hill, because they were living in Silver Lake, and my car just wouldn’t go anymore.
Brett: And Sierra got out! She was so scared.
Sierra: The car started rolling backwards. My life started flashing before my eyes.
Jason: Sierra, you say your life flashes before your eyes for everything.
Sierra: Because every Uber driver acts like they’ve never driven in California before!
Brett: So, yeah, basically we didn’t have any choice but to bond.
Adolescence is interesting to experience, but also to look back on. What parts of your teenage years did you tap into for your character?
Brett: I really relate to Jamal because he’s not necessarily the “hood” one. He’s sort of more neurotic and social and outgoing. I think sometimes that’s not seen so much in my community. It was really cool to sort of represent the kids who are like me who aren’t the cool or super “hard” kind of teens. I wish I had a show like this to see and say ‘I can be the cooky one and also be black and powerful and a man.’
Diego: I think people will relate to Caesar for being born into the wrong circumstances. They feel like they have a choice to go to college or chase their dream. So many kids, they follow the route they think is the only one they have. I hope this show gives them hope.
Jason: Me and Ruby talk too damn much and it gets us into things that we were not looking for.
Is that what happened to you in high school?
Jason: That’s still happening to me. [Laughs.]