Black Filmmakers—Stop Feeding Us Pain

We're in the greatest moment in Black visual culture history. But some directors are giving us trauma porn.

Dear Black Filmmakers, A few of y’all are doing severe damage to my psyche. Over the past seven years since Eric Garner was murdered while a camera recorded everything, I have watched tons of real Black snuff films. I have about 20 or 25 short clips of Black death in my memory, clips that, at a moment’s notice, I can call up or be triggered to see again. Most Black people have a similar library of Black trauma in our minds. We can see Tamir Rice being gunned down right by that gazebo. Philando Castile dying in the front seat of his car. John Crawford shot in the aisle of a Walmart. Ahmaud Arbery running for his life. Laquan Macdonald, Daunte Wright, Walter Scott… George Floyd. My mind is heavy with this baggage, these painful images of Black death caught on camera. My soul is weary watching Black trauma over and over. When new videos emerge, I admit, I can’t watch. I try to avoid them. I’m filled up with Black death and can’t take it anymore. I never watched all of George Floyd. It was too much. What I saw burned my eyes.

         When I turn off the news and turn to visual entertainment—movies and TV—I’m looking for something else. I’m looking for a break from the trauma. Uplift of some sort would be nice and it doesn’t have to be popcorn or saccharine or escapist. We’re in the era of Black Panther and Atlanta and Jordan Peele and Shonda Rhimes and Ava Duvernay where well-constructed, authentic discussions of Black life do well artistically and commercially. We’re in the greatest moment in the history of Black visual culture. There has never been more empowered Black visionaries behind the camera—the aforementioned plus Lena Waithe (The Chi, Queen & Slim), Issa Rae (Insecure), Kenya Barris (Black AF), Boots Riley (Sorry To Bother You), Robin Thede (A Black Lady Sketch Show), Justin Simien (Dear White People), Janet Mock (Pose), Steve McQueen (Small Axe, 12 Years A Slave), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, Underground Railroad), Regina King (One Night In Miami), Spike Lee, and on and on. This group is giving us powerful, intelligent, nuanced, authentic portrayals of Blackness that are giving me life. But, of course, there are also some films that are, as I said, doing severe damage to my psyche.  

         I think some filmmakers are responding to the ubiquity of trauma in the real world by speaking to it in their art. Distant Strangers, the Oscar winner for short film, is on Netflix giving us a Black man who wakes up, walks outside, gets into a confrontation with a cop, gets killed, and then magically wakes up in his bed and relives that scenario with slight changes again and again, an horrific groundhog day. During the short we see him attacked by police and murdered maybe ten times, I don’t know I lost track and could not bear to go back and count. It was too much. It was triggering and traumatizing to see him murdered by police so many times. I couldn’t understand why the filmmakers thought Black people needed to be exposed to this nightmare scenario multiple times. Art has every right to push people to see things they don’t want to see but if it’s going to do that it should push us because it helps us understand some point. I’m not sure how that film helps deepen our comprehension of the police violence crisis. I think it just shoves it in our face. Another new Netflix film, Monster, gives us a nice young Black boy, an intellectually-curious photography student, who starts the film on trial for his life after being tricked into participating as a lookout in a bodega robbery that left the store’s owner dead. We spend most of the film following him through a tense trial and a brief but anxiety-ridden spell in jail. Why does anyone think this is what Black people need to see now? Why do I want to be dragged through the world of jail, watching someone who’s good possibly spend life in prison? Sure, this is realistic but so what? It doesn’t add anything to reality, it doesn’t deepen our conversation with reality, it’s a window on the world and in that way it’s lazy trauma porn. Perhaps it’s meant to educate white people on how hard to is to be Black, even if you’re one of the good ones, but I’m not sure it does that and, really, if that’s your goal, to put Black characters through hellish situations in order to teach white people something then you may need to rip off the whiteness goggles and figure out how to make art that’s valuable for Black people.

         Them, a series on Amazon Prime, is powerful and edgy, but it, too, slips too deeply into trauma porn. A Black family in the 1950s has moved into all-white Compton. Instead of white flight, their neighbors respond by attacking them and making their life hell. There’s long scenes where Black people are tortured in all sorts of ways—a Black baby is killed by racists, a Black couple is blinded and burned alive... I got near the end but I was afraid of what was ahead and wondered why I was subjecting myself to this show and it’s circus of horrors. Did I want nightmares filled with images of Black minds and bodies being decimated? I bailed. For the love of Wakanda I don’t want Black filmmakers to take the power imbued in them by networks, studios, and streamers, and make art that traumatizes Black minds. That almost makes them seem like agents of white supremacy, slipping into the moment where all these Black creators are making empowering pieces, to give us counterprogramming—images of Black death, Black torture, Black fear of getting swallowed by the system. I want art where we subvert white supremacy, not where we’re being destroyed by it. I want art that makes me feel the power of Blackness, not art that makes me remember how tight the grip of white supremacy is. In Jordan Peele’s so-called horror films or Ava Duvernay’s stirring When They See Us, I never feel like there’s an unrelenting assault on the Black body—they cover tough territory without making me feel beat down. That’s part of their genius. Black filmmakers have an awesome power because the moving image is an amazing tool—when a film is good you feel like you’re inside of it, you bleed when the characters you empathize with bleed, you cry when they’re in pain, you rejoice when they’re happy. If you give me images of Black suffering, when I watch I will eventually feel like I, too, am suffering. I get that feeling from the news every few weeks. I’m sure that you can get a studio check by promising to paint them images using Black suffering and Black pain but the really great artist can get that studio money without peddling the torture of Black bodies. The really great Black artist can paint using Black joy, Black genius, Black love, and Black cool. 

What should you watch?

1. Random Acts Of Flyness (HBO) is perhaps the Blackest show in TV history.

2. Lover’s Rock, (Amazon Prime) the pinnacle of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, is a movie about a house party. They set up for the guests, the guests come, the guests have a good time. It’s a film about nothing except it’s not.

3. Watchmen (HBO). God is a Black man and Regina King’s Angela Abar is beating up racists.

4. Sorry To Bother You by Boots Riley may be the most anti-capitalist film ever made as it spoofs a Black man rising in the corporate system.

5. I May Destroy You (HBO). Brilliant. Powerful. Difficult. Compelling.

6. Exterminate The Brutes (HBO). OMG.