This time last year, Detroit had only been out for a couple of weeks, but I was already traumatised by it. The Kathryn Bigelow-directed film is a fictional account of the incidents leading up to, and following, a real-life violent altercation between police and civilians at the Algiers Motel in 1967 — three black men were horrifically killed and several others were beaten, tortured, and intimidated alongside two white women as the police followed a cold lead on the source of audible gunfire.
Detroit was timely, given that — thanks to the movement for black lives 50 years after the Algiers Motel incident — America was finally being forced to confront the terror that militarised police inflict on black communities. But that didn’t make it easier to watch. In fact, Detroit was unbearably incensing and disheartening precisely because of its relevance. As one of the only black viewers in the small cinema, I left feeling uneasy, unsafe, and wary of faces that didn’t look like mine. So much so that I took a personal day off work following the screening. As some would say, I had to “call in black.”
History is important, but Detroit wasn’t educational or instructive. It felt like trauma-porn and I’d had enough of it. From the news to my social media feeds, black pain was embedded into so much of the media I consumed. I had seen enough viral videos of police shootings to fuel my nightmares for the rest of my life. Shows were capitalising off of this sensationalism by constantly engaging shooting-turns-to-protest storylines. I dreamt of a break from it all. A year later, I’m finally feeling like filmmakers heard me.
What’s changed? A sudden emergence of movies, helmed by black folks, that have all allowed me to go through a range of emotions other than trauma when relating to black people on screen. We got a preview of this shift with Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut, Get Out, where he combined the conventions of both horror and comedy to nail down the unique trappings of liberal racism, while highlighting the subtle dangers of cultural appropriation. This summer alone has seen several big films that take creative deep dives into the intersection of institutional racism and black life. Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, and BlacKkKlansman are all different from Detroit because they were actually enjoyable, but no less weighty. They all had a liveliness that made me feel good about my decision to see all of them, and perhaps most importantly, I didn’t need to take a day to mentally recharge.
Contrast this with how the news heavily pushed a barrage of stories about innocent black people being killed by police officers and vigilantes; and later transitioned to coverage of the resurgence of white nationalism in the months since Trump was elected. Then, scripted television also capitalised off of the fervour in America’s racial tension and its deadly effects by producing impulsive shows like FOX’s Shots Fired and Netflix’s Seven Seconds. Recurring shows like Star and Empire on FOX incorporated Black Lives Matter as plot points. Just this season, Orange is the New Black has framed Taystee’s (Danielle Brooks) trial in the context of BLM-inspired protests. What all of these television portrayals did was delimit blackness to homogenous grief and tragedy.
In 2018, that seemed to change. Black Lives Matter oozed onto the big screen and got a much needed remix. This summer alone has seen several big films that take creative deep dives into the intersection of institutional racism and black life.
Boots Riley — the rapping frontman for musical groups The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club — made his feature film directorial debut this year with the experimental Sorry to Bother You. This mindfuck of a film (seriously, there is no other way to describe it) questioned how black people are pushed to participate in capitalism to escape poverty. Its protagonist Cash (LaKeith Stanfield) works for a call centre that sells modern slave labor to big corporations, and becomes an unexpected star employee thanks to his deployment of a hilariously deceptive “white voice.” Murder at the hands of police or extreme vigilante isn’t at the centre of Sorry to Bother You, but the disregard of black bodies and the stereotypes that have been used to validate our mistreatment converge when the ruthless CEO of the corporation that produces slave labor (Armie Hammer) begins to turn human beings into half-horse creatures.
Just a week after Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting hit cinemas across the country. With only a few days left of his post-prison, year-long probation, Collin (Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs, who also co-wrote and co-produced the movie along with his costar, Rafael Casal) witnesses the police shooting of an unarmed black man. In the immediate aftermath, Collin must contend with his own post-traumatic anxiety while navigating the trouble caused by his best friend — a slick-talking, hot-headed white boy named Miles (Casal) whose skin privilege has helped him evade the same legal troubles that Collin has faced. Blindspotting is edge-of-your-seat intense at times, especially when the presence of police intervention looms almost constantly as a threat to Collin’s fresh freedom. However, Diggs’ use of comedy and rap — the technique that made Hamilton so special— makes the viewing experience less fraught. Musical breaks gave state-sanctioned violence a magical realism feel, and somehow it worked.
Tomorrow, Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, will do the same. The biographical film recounts the experiences of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), the first black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, as he successfully infiltrated a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan by disguising his voice over the phone. Despite Lee’s annoying habit of beating viewers over the head with social messages, he managed to inject BlacKkKlansman with an effective mix of beauty, pain, humour, and realness, mimicking the reality of what it means to be black in America, even with the effects of racism shaping our existence.
What these films do is acknowledge that black death and struggle is a heartbreaking matter, but that confronting it doesn’t have to mean requiring black people to break their hearts over and over again. Combining playful elements of comedy and surrealism into portrayals of this truth does not negate it. Blackness is not tied exclusively to angst. We relish in joy, happiness, and laughter not in spite of our circumstances, but oftentimes as a form of resistance against them. Blackness is rich and plentiful, which means that our lives matter even when we aren’t clapping back at white supremacy and anti-Blackness.
The truth is that being black is hard. Having that anguish acknowledged and reflected in the media we consume is important. But it is also important that black people are not asked to constantly watch sensationalised versions of their own trauma over and over again. black stories told for entertainment should be told from 360-degree angles, capturing our ups and our downs, and to soothe our pains us as much as it should remind us of our realities. I want more shows and films that remind me to laugh, as if I could ever forget that there are so many more reasons to cry.
And most importantly, don’t give me another damn movie that makes me feel like I have to call in black.
R29 Unbothered presents Trap Glazed, a bi-weekly column where Senior Entertainment Writer Sesali Bowen looks deeper at what’s happening in black pop culture.