Mainstream media is saturated with Black death and suffering. Between real-time images of Black people being killed by police and the violence that is enacted against them in subsequent protests, Black folk are exhausted. So when the two newest projects dedicated to depicting racial violence in America were first unveiled, Black audiences were, understandably, pissed. In both Netflix’s Two Distant Strangers and the Prime Video original series Them, we are subjected to the same gratuitous use of violence that is quickly becoming the norm in Black film and television.
Them, a suburban race horror about a Black family that is confronted with both supernatural resistance and good ol’ 50s racism when they move into an all-white Compton neighborhood, fits right in with other civil rights-era works like The Help and Green Book, but is much more violent. Aside from the obvious and hugely problematic connections to Jordan Peele’s 2019 horror film Us, viewers will also have to contend with gruesome sexual assault, a drawn-out child murder scene, and a near-lynching that was so agonizing I had to skip through much of it.
Two Distant Strangers offers up a different brand of Black trauma. Rapper Joey Bada$$ delivers an endearing debut as a young Black man just trying to get home to his dog after a one-night stand, but who keeps being interrupted by a white police officer determined to kill him, one way or another. A film debut for writer and director Travon Free, this film is a more contemporary rehashing of all the ways we’ve seen Black men die over the last several years. A shot in the back. A no-knock raid at the wrong address. A knee to the neck where the actor actually says the words “I can’t breathe” (there are no words for the too soon-ness of this particular dramatization).
The day repeats itself in a Groundhog Day style that for all of the film’s problems, is at least somewhat successful in highlighting the relentlessness of police harassment against Black people, and the futility of trying to play by the rules in order to avoid it.
What these stories have in common is that they trade in tired, narrow renditions of racism that only manifest themselves through police brutality, Jim Crow and the KKK. And to put it simply, Black audiences are over it.
Get Out, the directorial breakout for comedian Jordan Peele, ushered in a new era of Black film-making that’s gotten more creative in how it comments on the realities of race in America, particularly through the horror genre. Unfortunately, the works that Get Out spawned don’t have as much to say about the topic as the source material does, and what results is a constant reopening of the wounds of racial violence, for very little payoff.
Much has been said about the psychological effects of reliving Black trauma in this way, and yet the most prominent depictions of Blackness we see in mainstream media always revert back to the same tropes. What’s worse, there’s nothing profound that emerges from these painful, periodic undertakings other than the idea that racism is Very Real and Very Bad, a fact that most Black people are quite painfully aware of. So that leaves the question, who is this really for? And what purpose do these films serve?
Black death has become a commercial product over the last decade
I think the answer to that lies in the fact of who is harmed and who is rewarded when these films are made. Black trauma porn allows white audiences (and film-makers for that matter) to say “I’m engaging with the tough and important stuff,” while reasserting a status quo of racial violence and Black suffering under the guise of authenticity. These works reaffirm racism as a sad reality, without really engaging with the complexity of what anti-Blackness looks like in America beyond gunfire and lynch mobs.
What’s clear now is that most contemporary “race films” (many of them written and/or directed by white people), aren’t in conversation with Black people at all, despite claims to the contrary. At their best, they speak more to white sensibilities (or lack thereof) about what Blackness and racial terror look like. And at their worst, they join a longstanding media culture of Black people being debased onscreen for money.
Black death has become a commercial product over the last decade, from film and television to the blatant commodification of real victims like Breonna Taylor. And as movies like Antebellum and Queen and Slim continue to sweep award shows, Black creators are finding themselves increasingly implicated in recreating these cycles of exploitation.
Many of their works aim to either teach white audiences something about the world they’re living in, or force them to see the ills of their people, Clockwork-Orange style. Either way, when films about Black people end up operating in service of whiteness, they inherently do a disservice to Blackness. Real people have to grapple with these stories, and the pain and trauma of Black audiences shouldn’t be considered an unfortunate side-effect in the larger project of white education and absolution.
Tayo Bero is a freelance writer