More than ever, discussions on Black life in America are tackling anti-Blackness, white supremacy, and racism in the media.
In just the last ten years alone, we have received an onslaught of shows, films, and books that center Blackness in relation to the rise and resurgence of hate groups, harmful rhetoric, and violence against Black and Brown people. These horrors are nothing new at all in America’s ever-unfolding history and stories that highlight just how terrible hate is are not new, either.
Violence and trauma are critical aspects of Black history that should never go unacknowledged and undermined. Mostly because it is still inflicted upon Black people now due to how much of a vicious cycle systemic racism is.
Media is very much a reflection of society, particularly of what is happening in the present. It is also a catalyst for provoking crucial discussions around society’s ills and, ideally, driving actual change to permanently heal those ills.
So, the content we are getting is timely and does not hesitate in shedding harsh light on America’s deeply rooted issues of white supremacy and racism. However, given a rather heavy proliferation of these stories in media over the last few years, coupled with its already long list of content illustrating the difficulties of being Black in society, I believe we have reached a zenith in our culture where Black pain is beginning to (already has, to a degree) outweigh other representations of Black life.
This article is not original in that there are other journalists, critics, scholars, and folks that don’t even write for a living who have already clocked this cultural trend. However, hearing about recent criticism around Amazon Studio’s Them (2021) and its horrific depictions of violence against the Black characters of the series, has been the nail in the coffin for me to write on this as well.
Falling within the growing mainstream popularity of speculative stories centering Black people, Them is a horror that highlights the atrocities of racism told in the setting of 1950’s Compton, California, and emphasized through the spectacularly abhorrent actions of the show’s White characters and supernatural forces.
The violence depicted in the series has received a lot of backlash from Black audiences. The general question being asked is if the series goes too far in showing incredibly disconcerting scenes of terrible violence against Black people.
Them creator Little Marvin did not intend to offend anyone, but told the Los Angeles Times that the “upsetting images [in Them] are designed to convey the savagery of racism”. The same discourse is floating around the Netflix short film Two Distant Strangers (2021), wherein a “Groundhog Day”-esque convention, the Black main character is killed by the same police officer over and over again.
Going back to the media being a reflection and a catalyst of depictions of Black people suffering, in sorrow, or struggling has been prominent in content and art since before the cultural booms of the 20th century, going back to slave narratives being used as rhetorical tools to persuade white readers away from supporting the institution of slavery.
These depictions expose the difficulties of being Black in dominantly white spaces and push back against the erasure of the pain inflicted on Black people by the structures of white supremacy. In mainstream media, it is particularly important in many respects because it exposes these contours of Black life to White audiences. The miniseries Roots (1977), was groundbreaking for showing just how insidious the institution of slavery was. It was so resonant in its initial airing because it really pulled back the veil on American history to wider audiences.
Since then, in film and television primarily, these depictions of Black life have been significant in combating the erasure of violence in the past and present. However, there has been a lot of discourse around just how much Black pain is shown in the expansive libraries of media content.
The term “torture porn” is often connected to depictions of Black people in excessive suffering. It has gotten to a point where we rarely see stories about Black people where violence and trauma are not at the center. Scholars have found that these constant depictions of pain can cause mental and emotional distress for Black audiences.
Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the African and African American studies department at Duke University states on the matter, “For white audiences, these projects offer an opportunity to see things they may not see on a regular basis, while for Black folks, it’s the same old, same old. People are really sensitive and raw about the graphicness of the violence because, for them, it’s not entertainment.”
When I first saw the trailer for Them, I was quite intrigued and wanted to see the series. Then when I read on the backlash, as well as just how extreme the scenes get. Knowing this, I don’t really want to subject myself to those kinds of images if what I really want from the show is to be entertained.
There has been a scarcity of media that depict other aspects of Black life in the positive. There was a big boom of it in the 1990s and some of the 2000s, with media content that showed an array of Black existence in America where pain was not the focus. Though stereotypes were very rampant, that is another discussion, but since the 2010s it’s been somewhat dry.
Right now, we are in a critical state of reckoning with America’s past. The current emphasis on the precariousness of Black life in relation to social and political interests is productive. So it makes sense that a lot of our content about Black life is emboldening artists to depict pain as informed by systemic racism. Even in comedies we have these discussions being woven into the narratives. However, I think it is just as important to emphasize all aspects of Black life in the media as a way to combat racism and white supremacy.
Black joy is a much-needed aspect to uplift in mainstream media narratives. According to Mei Ling Malone, a professor of African American studies at California State University, she states that Black joy “is an act of resistance. The whole idea of oppression is to keep people down. So when people continue to shine and live fully, it is resistance in the context of our white supremacist world.”
This is just as important to depictions of Black life than those of just violence and trauma, because it also emphasizes that Blackness is not just those elements. There are full ranges of feeling and being in Blackness. Especially in a time like now, highlighting these ranges play a crucial part in dismantling white supremacy. Because white supremacy was built to oppress, and part of that oppression is Black folks are portrayed in the media.
I will conclude here with a list of movies, films, and books that emphasize Black joy. It is not exhaustive, for there are countless examples out there. For more, you can literally Google “Black joy in ____” and you will get so much!
Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
The Incredible Jessica James
Black Lady Sketch Show
A Different World
Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, Frances E.W. Harper
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neal Hurston
Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo
Letters to my Daughter, by Maya Angelou