How An Episode Of 'Black Mirror' Illustrated The Groundhog Day Of Black Pain
"You are always just a Google search or Facebook video away from watching a black person being killed."
Watching Black Panther (twice) put me on a nimbus we don't get to navigate too often in cinema. Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole and their team created a universe of black excellence that had moviegoers of all backgrounds on a high. One of the standouts of the film was definitely Letitia Wright, who played Shuri, Wakanda's princess and tech genius. In looking back at her career, I didn't realize that I had seen her before, not too long ago. Like Daniel Kaluuya before her, she played on an episode of Black Mirror called "Black Museum."
In short, "Black Museum" was an anthology episode with Letitia Wright as the lead character, Nish, taking a tour of a museum filled with technology created by the host, Rolo Haynes. As the tour progresses, Haynes tells Nish stories about a few of the gadgets and the coinciding lives they ruined. When we reach the final story, we land on Clayton Leigh, a former death row inmate who traded his mind to a science project that gives customers the ability to execute him over and over again, electric chair-style, in promise for a profit for his family. When viewers participate, they are able to not only watch his execution, but also receive a pocket-sized version of his pain in the form of a locket. The message is clear in how readily accessible you can find videos of black people being shot down. You are always just a Google search or Facebook video away from watching a black person being killed.
And this is how we desensitize.
In reading reviews of this episode, writers gave pretty spot on interpretations of the metaphor the writer Charlie Booker created, like this one on Vice:
As progressive as the dystopic methods in each episode are, the age-old message remains ironically regressive; that black pain, black trauma, and black bodies are meant to be on literal display for an audience’s enjoyment. In some ways, it feels like the torture porn that we’ve seen time and time again: Is a commodification of the black struggle.
Addawoo, Vice (2018)
The trend that I noticed from these reviewers, however, tended to lean on either the videos of black people being murdered/beaten or mass incarceration (both huge problems in our society), and relating them to historical atrocities such as lynching post cards and human zoos. But aside from that, numerous television shows and movies have been flooding the Hollywood gates over the last few years, and are still coming. From Netflix's Seven Seconds, CBS's pilot for Red Line, to Detroit and Monsters and Men, we are being overloaded with content inspired by, or capitalizing on, black death. Even when the show flips the script, like Fox's Shots Fired, which had a black officer shooting an unarmed white man, it was easy to see what they were trying to get at.
Now, content is content, and film can be a tool for recording the times, albeit in an exaggerated form. With the push for diversity, since the #OscarsSoWhite controversy a few years back, and what seems to be a black renaissance with the influx of black creators, it's easy to see why so many of these stories are being greenlit.
Where the issue lies is the capitalization of a problem that doesn't seem to go away and the incurring blurred line between entertainment and art for change. In hearing Ryan Coogler talk about Fruitvale Station, one could hear the sincerity being that he and Oscar Grant were both from the Bay area. When he created the film, he truly wanted to humanize Oscar and bring light to an issue in this country in a different way, through showing Oscar alive, rather than just the few minutes of his murder we all saw on the internet back in 2009:
"Media representations of young African American males are often one sided and very narrow to the point that they are dehumanizing, to the point that their lives don't have the same value that other lives have, to the point that people are okay with them dying young."
Zuckerman, The Atlantic (2013)
It came from a place of wanting to dismantle the implicit bias that flows within society. Since then, we've seen murder after murder with barely any indictments or jail time. Likewise, we've seen film after film and show after show produced for these networks, creating black pain that we can watch on our TVs and phones like lockets of torture. But rather than watching one person being killed, we have a rolodex of different scenarios of the same thing.
And this is Groundhog Day.
If you can recall the Bill Murray classic of the same name, about a day that keeps repeating, you may remember there being scenes in which Murray's protagonist, Phil Connors, begins to feel so hopeless in his situation that he dreads his existence.
Deep inside his Groundhog Day, Phil knows everything, anticipates everything, every wrinkle and flicker on the face of Time. He sits on a wall, poised, almost meditative: “A gust of wind, a dog barks. Cue the truck.” The critic Tom Shone finds on Murray’s face “the unshockable expression of a man who knows exactly what everyone is about to say seconds before they say it. That's what deadpan is, essentially, a physiognomical register of omniscience.
Parker, The Atlantic (2013)
Watching these movies and television shows about black pain has become this. Though the characters and settings may differ, it's essentially the same thing. Knowing how Hollywood works, executives wouldn't greenlight these stories if they weren't selling. So it begs the question: Why does America love watching black death, but not believe it is an injustice worth fighting to change?
This isn't to say that we should stop creating these stories. If they aren't told, then we are surely going to forget. Film is also a tool to spread awareness of issues that aren't properly documented in the media. But there is a huge difference when the show comes from the likes of a Jay Z or Ava Duvernay, whose documentaries didn't just tell stories about mass incarceration and solitary confinement, but pushed for a systemic change. The difference being nuance, authenticity and not telling stories simply for ratings and profits. They've mastered the middle-ground between art for change and business.
As a filmmaker with an organization called HipStory Films, I have been able to utilize our films in school settings through a workshop titled "The Art of Racial Trauma," in which we not only show films about black mental health, but also speak with students and administrators in a way that gets them to think more solution based when dealing with their own trauma. Our next project, Project Forgotten, utilizes the same Groundhog Day vehicle I referenced in order to bring light to another issue in our country: the disappearance of women of color. Although we are still in the process of getting this film funded, and without giving spoilers, the purpose is this: How long are we going to watch the same thing happen over and over without demanding a change to get us out of this time loop?
Like Jay Z, Ava Duvernay and Ryan Coogler, it is my hope to be able to master this middle-ground of creating art for change to utilize black pain in order to push our society further, rather than creating a locket to be fetishized. It is also my hope that other filmmakers do the same. Like Lena Waithe's The Chi, I want to show the human of our characters to keep people from becoming desensitized to some of our real life horrors. And for the viewers, when watching these shows and movies, remember that although they are entertaining, for some of us, the black pain isn't a locket to be put away when the show ends.