We are all well-accustomed to movies and films depicting the oppression of and racism against Black people. These stories are in high demand as social justice has turned into something of a trend over the past year. However, what we forget to consider is how these films and other forms of activism have turned Black suffering into a commodity to be sold and exploited. This growing market for images of Black people in pain has a tremendous adverse effect on the mental health of the Black community.
Imani Waweru is a young Black activist and an intern at the Health Education Council. She defines images of Black suffering can be defined as pictures, videos, or narratives describing violence against Black people in gratuitous detail without clear purpose. These images circulate within Hollywood and on social media.
“At first you think ‘Wait, these are stories that deserve to be told.’ Even I thought the same thing at some point, and I got very defensive about it because I love history and especially black history. But once you look at the pattern — these are the white directors and writers and production teams attempting to imitate the black experience,” Waweru explains.
Movies such as Them, The Butler, The Help, Freedom Writers, and 12 Years a Slave were not led by a Black team, have some aspect of white saviorism, or both. With the popularity of this genre, we must wonder why the film industry is obsessed with depicting Black suffering. Why are these types of movies succeeding and deemed profitable?
“There’s a sense of sensationalism for non-black, specifically white audiences, when it comes to black violence,” she believes.
Perhaps it appeases their white guilt — makes them feel like they are not part of the group causing the problem. Whatever the case, these movies are not produced with Black empowerment in mind.
For Black communities, seeing these images is a constant reminder of how American systems see them as less than human.
“[The violence in these movies is] very graphic. There’s absolutely no artistic direction or message for it. It’s just to excite audiences, which I find quite disturbing.”
Watching movies that show unnecessary violence against your own community and draining and taxing.
“I just find myself, after every movie, just sobbing, just exhausted every single time,” she recalled.
“There were dolls being hung on the porch of the house. There was even a scene where there was a Black mother being raped as a child was being burned alive. And at some point you’re just like ‘What is the point of this movie? What message are you trying to send here? Why is it just graphic Black violence?’”
In addition to these movies acting as trauma on repeat, they also normalize the idea of Black suffering and Black death. People can become unphased at the idea of systemic violence.
“A lot of Black little kids are seeing bodies drop around them and are being desensitized to it. There was a time where there was a police brutality victim and I kind of just had this reaction where it was like, ‘Damn, they got another one.’
And then I was like, ‘Whoa, what the hell? What the hell? That should not be my reaction.’ That’s beyond insensitive. The death of people that look like me is not something that I should ever have an indifferent attitude towards.”
The problem is not limited to the fact that Black suffering is so profitable in film, but also that there are rarely movies depicting Black joy. Slavery and police brutality are not the only aspects of Black stories that can be told.
According to Cal State Fullerton African American studies professor Mei-Ling Malone, “Black joy is an act of resistance. The whole idea of oppression is to keep people down. So when people continue to shine and live fully, it is resistance in the context of our white supremacist world.
Black joy is something many activists are advocating for as a form of resistance because of its emphasis on the humanity of their communities. Black people do not always need to be victims of horrendous crimes.
When audiences see Black people celebrating everyday victories and living good, fulfilling lives, they are seeing a display of strength and endurance despite racial oppression,
“We need to step away from these images of Black suffering all the time. It’s time. It’s a time for Black people to have Black joy movies, to have coming of age movies, to have vampire-werewolf movies,” Waweru affirms.
“If we continuously keep putting out this content and keep adding on to that sensationalism and making it that much stronger, Hollywood is only going to continue to produce these stories because they know that’s what’s profitable. They know that’s what’s exciting despite how traumatizing it’ll be for Black audiences.”
To support our Black communities, we need to be more vigilant about the media we consume. Eliminate the audience, and there is no incentive to continue capitalizing on pain.
“It’s exhausting and traumatizing having to live in a constant state of hyper-vigilance and paranoia. It’s exhausting and traumatizing to constantly see this 400 plus year war on the bodies of people who look like you. It’s exhausting and traumatizing to constantly be reminded of your lack of basic humanity and society,” Waweru continues.
To truly move forward, we as a society need to focus less on Black death and more on Black life.