We Need to Talk About Black Mirror’s Obsession With Black Suffering
“Black Museum” is perhaps the first episode to address race head-on. But does it do justice?
Images courtesy of Netflix
It goes without saying that Black Mirror is one of the most bewitching sci-fi thrillers we currently have.
Now in its fourth season, the show explores everything from Star Trek-inspired tech nerd revenge (“USS Callister”), the plight of overprotective mothers (“ArkAngel”), and the simulated fates of star-crossed lovers (“Hang the DJ”). But it’s the finale, “Black Museum,” that speaks the loudest.
Deemed the “White Christmas” episode of the season based on its multiple storyline formula, “Black Museum” is anything but. As Nish (played by Letitia Wright, Black Panther) roams through Rolo Haynes’ Black Museum during a three-hour futuristic pit stop, we almost immediately shuffle in our seats.
A dark-skinned black girl walking into an empty horror museum in the middle of the desert? What could possibly go wrong?
She’s met by Haynes himself who takes her on a tour through his haunted house of horrors. We, along with Nish, are walked through a series of now-illegal and ethically questionable objects on display: a borderline-BDSM neurological hat that allowed a doctor to overdose on sexual pleasure from his patient’s pain, a neurological device that evicts a person’s consciousness from their body to live rent-free in someone else’s mind, and finally, a digital hologram of an incarcerated black man in a cell. A literal shell of a man, we find that it’s none other than Clayton Leigh, a wrongfully-convicted murderer on death row whose consciousness is now etched in digital eternity. We’re told his story: that when Haynes worked as a business med-tech (whatever that is) he visited Clay in jail and offered him a way out of his execution by digitally immortalizing his essence into a permanent hologram in exchange for money for his family.
Clay becomes Haynes’ primary attraction, ringing in busloads of sick white people (and one random Asian guy) to pull a lever re-enacting Leigh’s electrocution. Now, all that remains are the vacuous crumbs of Leigh’s previous self.
This is the final straw for Nish, who reveals herself to be his daughter here on a redemptive mission to bring Haynes down.
Nish points out the protests after Clay’s sentencing and the museum closing down, except for a few racist, voyeuristic one-offs who paid extra to keep Haynes in business. Nish condemns him to an eternal life of electrocution (solidified via souvenir) by locking Hayne’s consciousness into Clay’s virtual one, and is finally able to say her goodbyes.
Nish burns the museum down, and we find that her dead mother shares occupancy inside Nish’s mind, as well.
Nish is proof that not all heroines wear capes.
She reflects the unspoken grief that black people—particularly black women—carry. We’re often asked to bury deep emotional scars in our minds, hearts, and souls, and are almost never afforded the luxury of cerebral safety. We’re in constant fear of losing our loved ones; our sons, daughters, fathers, and brothers whose lives are unjustly snuffed out before their time.
Because of socio-economic access, we’re also left medically neglected, not always getting the treatment we need for better mental and physical health. We’re twice as likely to deal with anxiety or depression and have some of the highest breast cancer mortality rates.
We are emotional secret-keepers. Much like Nish’s undercover status, we’re asked to forego our feelings for the sake of “socially acceptability” (read: white fragility). We’re denied the full spectrum of our emotions in order to move through our daily professional (and sometimes personal) lives—even when flash anger is due.
Nish’s revenge is not only justified; it’s well-deserved.
As if operating in a parallel universe, Nish’s fictional character comes at a time when real-life 27-year-old Erica Garner (daughter of Eric Garner who died from a police chokehold in 2014) recently passed following a heart attack and months after giving birth. Erica became an activist in light of her father’s death and not only had to face the state’s glaring miscarriage of justice, but all the media discourse that also came with it.
Much like Nish and Clay, “Black Museum” also puts us face to face with past realities like the gynecological experimentation of enslaved Black women, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in the 1930s, and the forced sterilization of Native American women in the 1970s and beyond.
It’s horror histories like these that make this episode so daunting.
In the past, racialized characters on Black Mirror (and many British shows for that matter) feel almost inadvertently present and largely ignored, leaving audiences to interpret racial subtext for themselves. Skins (considered the British Degrassi) barely acknowledges faith-based and racial differences. Race is almost entirely ignored in gritty supernatural drama Misfits to the point where it almost feels unnatural when Nathan acknowledges Curtis’ Blackness.
But it’s hard not to read into the corrective godlike punishment for Biblical transgressions in episodes like “White Bear” where Victoria (Lenora Crichlow), a Black woman, is repeatedly shocked out of her memory after participating in a child murder, later becoming a shamebot to be paraded through the streets in a Cersei-esque Walk-of-Shame.
It’s equally as difficult to turn a blind eye to Bing’s cog-in-the-machine breakdown in “Fifteen Million Merits” where Bing (Daniel Kaluuya) is a part of a simulated slave-like institution that requires its society to ride bikes to power their surroundings and earn “merits.” In a fight against the system that pressured his love into a life of pornography, Bing punches his screen, hides a piece of glass, gets his merits up, and manages to get back on the show to threaten to take his own life. But his protest is quickly turned to parody as he becomes a part of the show and is offered a weekly spot in exchange for a nicer pod—to which he accepts.
It, like “Black Museum,” is a painful episode about forcing the hands of the disenfranchised. Like Bing, Clay also isn’t left much of an option—either participate in a soul-sucking science project-like system and die (figuratively), or don’t participate and die at the hands of a system positioned against Black men anyway (literally).
Both episodes take advantage of marginalized persons wanting a better life. In “Fifteen Million Merits,” things couldn’t be any more clear: Bing’s struggle, though entertaining, is not meant to be taken seriously. And while Bing’s “rage” is contained through a system, Clay’s objections in “Black Museum” are to be contained in chains. In a cell. In the afterlife.
In both cases, both characters are reduced to—and only kept—for one thing: profit.
But “Black Museum” is the first time we see Black Mirror addressing race head-on. Does it do justice?
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: a commodification of the Black struggle.
It’s a recurrent theme that leads one to ask, well, what is Charlie Brooker’s deal?
The aforementioned episodes all obsess over the plight of being trapped in an oppressive system designed to capitalize off of [Black] suffering. They break down the mind, preserve the body, and make a mockery of pain. They leave their victims with no choice but to participate until they’re nothing left but hollow, empty shells.
One can’t help but compare it to our current desensitized culture where Black deaths are widely spread across the internet like a Worldstar fight. Black people dying at the hands of injustice has become so commonplace that our world feels like simulated, too. Troy Anthony Davis. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. Mike Brown. Trayvon Martin. The list is endless.
“Black Museum” also comes at an interesting time when Afrofuturism is finally starting to pick up steam. Sci-fi has historically been used to critique systemic regimes (e.g. X-Men or literally any Octavia Butler book), and with Afrofuturist movies like Black Panther and music videos like “Family Feud,” we’re only now exploring messages outside of blaxploitation within the (sub)genre. Films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out that explore the nuances of experimentation on Black bodies for white advancement are only the beginning.
But whether we’re romanticized for our sexual prowess, idolized for our artistic “eye”, or straight up demonized and locked away, make no mistake—”Black Museum” is an episode about mental incarceration. Perhaps what stings most are the ripples of a quadruple homicide effect: Clay’s unjust execution by the state, his digital remains in a continuous loop of torture, his wife’s overdose, and the annihilation of his mind. He can barely even recognize his own daughter by the end of it all, and who can blame him?
Nevertheless, there’s a tinge of hope by the episode’s end. Clay’s wife living on as an inhabitant of Nish’s consciousness is a powerful testament to the reclamation of the Black mind. For a show that has a proven obsession with Black suffering, it seems like a subtle step in the right direction.
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