In the second episode of “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas,” the stand-up comedian’s new late night series for HBO, Cenac finds a glimmer of hope in the most unlikely of places: Birmingham, Alabama. The half-hour episode concludes with a field piece that finds Cenac in the birthplace of the civil rights movement, where he is surprised to discover a majority black police force that has been working with community groups to make amends for its history of police violence. Despite the progressive changes, one of the city’s most vulnerable groups is left out of the process: The transgender community, particularly women of color.
Daroneshia Duncan, who runs a resource center for transgender women in Birmingham, says police often misgender transgender women, or label their murders cold cases without conducting a thorough investigation. “They still refuse to accept you for who you are,” she said. Another woman added: “You see a lot of the girls get molested, you see a lot of them still go to jail after molestation… They’re gonna always make you the bad person regardless if you’re the victim or not.”
During a recent interview with IndieWire, Cenac was visibly moved when he recounted meeting Duncan and the other members of the Birmingham transgender community.
“She’s a trans woman of color, and so there’s also this added layer of it that is like, right, you’re in Birmingham, a place that’s obviously known for a complicated history with law enforcement and people of color. And then now here is a person of color who is also trans,” he said. “I never thought about it through this particular lens, and that’s interesting as we talk about police and police reform and police accountability. What does that look like for the person who gets misgendered in a crime scene report and is the victim of a crime and gets misgendered, and how much more dehumanizing is that?”
Duncan’s organization, T.A.K.E. (Transgender Advocates Knowledgeable Empowering), provides peer support, health information, and job training to transgender women of color. “To go to Birmingham, Alabama — Jeff Sessions’ home state — and see that there is a community and there is outreach for trans people,” said Cenac. “It would be very easy to say, ‘Oh yeah. You do not want to be trans in Alabama.’ You probably don’t, but…if you are, you’re not alone. You have resources, you have people, and what you need is the people of Birmingham to see your humanity and respect you as an individual, and as a resident of the same community, and make sure that you have all the same rights and privileges.”
In the episode, Cenac sits down the with police Chief Roper, the man responsible for the recent changes to the department, and asks him point blank about those pesky cold cases. Roper acknowledges the mistakes of the past, and proudly states that he closed at least one case after Duncan made him aware of the problem. “She put us on notice. So we solved that case,” he tells Cenac.
Each episode of “Problem Areas” will visit a different American city, exploring different issues all through the lens of policing. Rather than make another show about Donald Trump, he said, he wanted to find a way to directly address problems faced by the country’s most vulnerable.
“When we simply write a place off as like, ‘Well, it’s just Trump country,’ for the people who are there we do them a disservice on some level,” said Cenac. “It’s their country, too. It’s not just Trump country; it’s theirs and they have just as much right and access to it, and we should be telling their stories so that their existence doesn’t feel so foreign or bizarre to the people who do live in that community.”
The episode concludes with Cenac sharing a personal story about his own run-in with a mall cap when he was 19 years old. “On a personal note, this story it really resonated with me because, like so many people of color, I’ve also had my own uncomfortable run-ins with the police,” Cenac says. “Sitting across from Chief Roper, I felt compelled to tell him about it.”
This being Cenac, he asks Roper to apologize on behalf of the mall cop, and the moment takes a lighter turn. It’s this unique blend of humor and heart that have always made Cenac such a vital comedic voice, and one we’re lucky to have back on TV.
“Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas” airs on HBO Fridays at 11:30 pm. Check out a clip from Friday’s episode below.