I’m Over the Blacksplaining Going on in Film and Television
Many stories around the black experience aren’t being told for black people.
From left to right, Sorry to Bother You and Dear White People | Images courtesy of Annapurna Pictures and Netflix.
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
When George Zimmerman was acquitted, I was at a friend’s house. She and I were doing the whole movie night thing—an old DVD collection here and a random news segment there. I remember expecting an acquittal that day, preparing for it even, but not really prepared for the disappointment of it. And I remember laying back on her wooden floor a few minutes after, finding it hard to process the running line on CNN’s lower third—"George Zimmerman is acquitted in Trayvon Martin Killing."
It used to take me no time at all to work up to what I felt that day—some shit stew of anger and confusion. That dirty feeling is what I expected to find in Paramount and BET’s new docuseries Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story. A reanalysis of the unjust killing of another innocent black teenager by a non-black male? How could I not feel it?
I didn’t feel it.
That's not to say that my rage over the incident is tempered; I’m just a disillusioned black dude. I’m tired of the many stories that re-explain the world I know by birthright (living while black). I have a forced degree in this shit (my skin knows no tan). I’ve taken this class before, I know the work, and frankly, I’ve been past ready for a different take on the subject.
Now granted, a docuseries like Rest in Power has its place. It’s fascinating as a drudging up of conversations around race, identity, and the injustice encircling Trayvon Martin’s legacy. It informs by way of gut-wrenching crime photos around black pain. And it educates through historic contrast to black history (Emmett Till, Rodney King).
But while Rest in Power does act as an appropriate perspective of the Trayvon Martin case, it stands in contrast to so much other content that panders to white audiences such as Dear White People or 12 Years a Slave. They act like these teachable moments about a darker experience, shifting themselves into social examiners of whiteness, interplays with black life. In an instance like Rest in Power, the education comes through insight—black POVs replacing white POVs that alter steadfast ideologies. That whole racial profiling thing? It's pretty racist. The media’s negative depiction of a black teenager? Also racist. The decision to use an all white jury? You guessed right, racist—all questions with conclusions that seem pretty damn unquestionable (and unnecessary) seated next to my black-as-hell experience. It’s understandable and forgivable as a documentary, but not for me.
Other films and TV shows that make a determination to reflect on race prescribe their own samplings of the plainly obvious about black life. Slavery pieces like Glory, 12 Years a Slave, and Amistad are the empathy manufacturers of black cinema, dispersing pockets of heartache and pain with a message: Black folks were slaves, shit was fucked up, white folks... you fucked up. And a TV show like Dear White People presents its sampling with the satirical mashup of black students navigating around a mostly white university—a social interaction between one group (blacks) attempting to educate the other group (white folks) on black struggles.
I’m just tired of the introduction course to the unfortunate bullshit that feels below my grade. I’m a black man in North America. These elements are a part of me. When George Zimmerman was found not guilty, I never needed a doc to express the devastating unfairness and loss of hope—the hope that a justice system would extend a damn olive branch to a black life rather than excuse it. And as far as slavery, I’ve been called the N-word enough times to seek out its dark origins time and again through history and the arts.
What I want instead are more stories that represent what it’s like to just be alive in this world called blackness. One that doesn’t spend time explaining, examining, and interrogating for the sake of a white gaze. Donald Glover’s Atlanta on the FX Network revels in its blackness, not on behalf of white consumption, but completely for the opposite reasons. A simple show about three black dudes and a girl (Earn, Cousin Alfred, Darius, and Vanessa) living out their dailies in Atlanta. Georgia is a world that speaks for itself. It can’t ignore black struggles like I can’t ignore a bullshit traffic stop, but that reality needs no explaining to that end either. Moonlight operates in the same manner, dancing around race but also sexuality. And Sorry to Bother You along with Get Out appeal to a black experience by transforming common-sense anxieties into surrealist nightmares. It’s familiar, but just weird and vague enough to wink and nod at the audience.
I’m all for content that enlightens and illuminates white audiences, but it’s also time that we stop making teachable moments the disproportionate focus for white eyes in the things we label as “black” TV shows or “black” films. I’ve never in my life needed a course reminder of what it was like to live with this skin, and I’m not about to spend my free time taking another one now.
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