For many Black folk, June was an incredibly stressful time. There was widespread emphasis on exposing racism and violence towards us, and media became extremely triggering to consume. For me, this happened when the video of George Floyd‘s killing wouldn’t leave my TikTok For You page, and when I watched the uncle of Rayshard Brooks have a breakdown on CNN. During the latter, my mother and I looked at each other in a moment of heartache and began weeping intensely.
Black pain has been the backdrop of the political unrest this summer, but instead of reading Black academia or listening to speeches from Black revolutionaries and anti-racist activists, it seems that many white people – who, for the first time in their lives, are educating themselves about racism – are instead turning to film and TV.
Both of these mediums allow for the in-depth examination of hard topics, but when it comes to talking about race, it seems that more often than not we’re met with narratives that depict Black people as subordinates or in pain.
This has been a common theme over the last few weeks. For instance, The Help started trending on Netflix, which also made the choice to create a #BlackLivesMatter genre, despite multiple accusations of colourism over casting choices in their original content. Instagram infographics attempting to educate people about anti-racism kept recommending films about Blackness that only depicted violence. The same goes for “Films to watch if you want to be anti-racist” listicles from white film journalists trying to make amends.
I could give them the benefit of the doubt and suggest they’re at least trying to engage in anti-racism without depending on Black people to educate them, but consider the years of Black people speaking up about representation and this effort starts to feel hollow. There is a clear disconnect between the media white audiences uses to educate themselves and the media Black people tend to support wholeheartedly. The stories that white audiences surround themselves with are often those that Black people can’t watch without experiencing some sort of PTSD.
Dr Fatoumata Jatta, a Clinical Psychologist based in London, says that this is a common experience her clients go through: “I have seen this in not only my BAME client group, but also in myself. What we know from research is that just seeing a type of pain in others can cause viewers to elicit an emotional reaction, as well as a physical one at times. One of the things that can also impact that is how much we identify with what we’re witnessing, so with a Black person viewing those images, they’re more likely to identify with what’s happening. Those images can be triggering experiences of our past and present.”
For Hollywood to truly alter the way it depicts the Black experience through its primarily white lens, the answer should be obvious: hire more Black people to write, direct, produce and so on. But instead of taking the time to sit with the current moment and enact deep systemic change within an industry that’s currently on hiatus due to COVID-19, Hollywood has opted for the kind of PR move you’d expect to see in an episode of Bojack Horseman.
“I’m very annoyed with the current diversity conversations, because I feel like it’s coming from a place of Hollywood not wanting to make any long-term change,” says Jourdain Searles, a Black film critic and screenwriter.
Recently, Searles interviewed Kendrick Sampson, a cast member on HBO’s Insecure who co-signed a letter with other notable Black actors to ask Hollywood to address how Blackness is represented. For Searles, it was interesting to witness an actor of Sampson’s level show legitimate concern for both protesters on the streets and institutional change – but she wonders if the rest of the industry would do the same.
“I wondered what it would take for the rest of Hollywood to care, apart from the people who have already been lifelong activists,” she says. “Instead of making any new change, they’re finding old things we used to complain about on Twitter to fix, such as #OscarsSoWhite. It feels like they’re saying, ‘Well, now we can finally pay attention to the old diversity issues people were mad at,’ and this feels really cheap to me.”
The current dialogue surrounding animation and Blackface is a perfect example – not because these aren’t conversations worth having, but because celebrities sending out iOS press release apologies for choices they otherwise wouldn’t be apologising for isn’t exactly what the countless brave protesters risking coronavirus for what’s right have been asking for.
When we look at the repeated use of Blackface in TV shows like 30 Rock – which finished airing prior to this current movement – the sudden move to erase any and all episodes featuring Blackface feels like a halfhearted measure from a guilty conscience. It was only four years ago that Tina Fey wrote an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt where a character donned Yellow Face. It was also this episode in which Fey “cancelled” cancel culture by depicting Asian-Americans as an angry internet mob for rightfully being annoyed at a racist caricature.
Which begs the question: if Tina Fey is so apologetic and understanding now, why did she gaslight people for their concerns four years ago? And why did she have a white woman play a Native American role?
The short answer is: this recent wave of apologies is performative. White celebrities and creatives are realising they can gain cultural currency if they say they no longer hold the racist beliefs they held not so long ago. It’s also why shows like Family Guy, The Cleveland Show and The Simpsons are pivoting away from their long-held “anti-PC” positions to appease a crowd they have long shown disdain towards.
To be frank, I don’t care about white people apologising for this stuff. It feels like self-gratification; a pat on the back for doing the bare minimum to dismantle decades of racist representation. What I want to see instead are clear and honest moves made towards funding Black art within the film industry. Stop giving jobs to the same four actors who benefit from nepotism, make sure there are more scholarships given to Black filmmakers who can’t afford to attend film schools, and eradicate the idea that a story of Blackness must be about trauma to hold any value. There are countless other ways to talk about racism, such as comedy, science fiction or horror. Apologies are worthless unless we see actions taken to dismantle the racism that white people continuously benefit from.