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Hollywood’s Obsession with Traumatizing Black People

If you’ve ever kept up with any of my previous work, you may notice a theme or pattern. I have a particular affinity for examining issues and topics that might be meaningful to the Black reader. In doing so, I’m allowed to stay connected to my community even from a distance. With that being said, as much as I enjoy having the opportunity to write from a Black perspective, I’m also voluntarily subjecting myself to a lot of content that can be triggering. Unfortunately that’s one of the most disheartening aspects of what I do on this platform. I try to avoid news coverage of domestic terrorism or anti-Black police brutality, or anything of the sort because quite frankly, I’m tired. This feeling of exasperation is not unique, but rather it is one large amalgamation of constant trauma. Lately I realized that I can’t turn a complete blind eye because it seems like every other day—I’m being hyperbolic—a new slave-type or racially charged film or series is released. That made me  think about just how insidious this trend is (and I hate to call it that because it’s always been around, but it has become more blatant and frequent in the past couple of years). It just seems as if now (possibly more than before), every movie that’s marketed as a Black story to the public just ends up being a heaping pile of fake-conscious, half baked existential trauma porn. And it begs the question: what the hell is going on?

turned off gray CRT TV on table
PJ Gal-Szabo

Trauma porn can be pathologized as a fantasy of watching violence be inflicted upon a particular group of people for one’s own pleasure. In other words, trauma porn is a concept used to describe the phenomenon of exploiting a marginalized party’s pain,death, and/or misfortune. It’s a perverse fascination that finds its way into misguided social activism and recently, in particular, into entertainment. In my humble Negro opinion, we are force-fed traumatic depictions in entertainment as a way to: 

1. Condition us into re-normalizing excessive violence and brute force against Black people in a manner similar or eqiuvalent to the Transatlantic Slave Trade/chattel slavery 

2. Express a desire to cause Black people harm as a way to minimize or rather, trivialize our experiences. 

As difficult as it is to write about this possibly to an audience that has little to no familiarity with this sick sensation, just imagine how  difficult it is  to experience it. 

Recently Barry Jenkins announced that on May 14th, he’d be releasing The Underground Railroad, a series slated for viewing on Amazon Prime Video as an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Colson Whitehead. As the title would suggest, the series is yet another slave drama. And as you might imagine, a collective of woeful Negro sighs could be heard instantaneously. It wasn’t at this announcement alone, but also towards the collection of trauma-porn releases in Hollywood in recent years. For example, the 2019 film Queen & Slim depicted elements of a trauma porn trope when scenes of anti-police brutality protests are cut together with our titular main chracters having sex in a car. Necessary? Not at all. Trying to make Black pain entertaining never is, but yet here we have it. It was like the director was trying to say ‘‘Yeah their imminent death is near but at least they finally did it’. 

Photo by aj_aaaab on Unsplash

Actually as I’m writing this I made quite the discovery when I found out that the film was partially written by/developed by Lena Waithe who now problematically has a pattern of putting out deleterious content against Black people. Most recently Waithe has been under (much deserved) fire for Amazon Prime Video’s latest series entitled Them, a cheap knockoff of Jordan Peele’s wildly successful 2019 film Us—which is odd and concerning that this is the sort of Black content Amazon wants to bring to its mega-platform, given their massive streaming influence…hm, the anti-Black agenda continues. Particularly, Black viewers have been upset by some of the more graphic scenes in the series. For example there’s a scene where a Black infant is beaten to death by adult white men while his mother watches in horror as she is brutally raped. Now let that marinate. It’s a bitter taste isn’t it? If just reading about these things gives you a visceral reaction, imagine how heightened that experience would be if you were a part of the group experiencing it firsthand.

The madness doesn’t stop there however because I equally found many scenes in Tyler Perry’s Ruthless disturbing for similar reasons. For instance, Perry—who has proudly bragged in the past about not having a professional writer’s room because he writes all of his productions by himself—creates a disturbing scene in which one Black woman is bound and whipped repeatedly by another Black woman in a manner reminiscent of slave whippings. And while this is occuring, the woman with the whip is simultaneously having sexual intercourse with a Black man, seemingly because both are sexually aroused by the abuse of a presumably unconsenting third party (it sounds even more ridiculous as I’m writing this). 

It’s just puzzling as a Black female viewer (and moreover as a human being) why scenes or plots like these receive the greenlight from executives. How can it be passed through so many tiers of production without raising any eyebrows that it could be taken the wrong way (because that’s exactly what it looks like)? These production and streaming companies love to proclaim that they care about their Black audiences and want to give actors of color more opportunities or bring more Black folk behind the scenes in power positions. Yet, when given the chance to actually make this happen through more positive portrayals, they instead give us a sort of metaphorical ‘Pornhub but make it traumatic’ production. 

We don’t care about how artfully produced the scenes are or how superb the acting is if it means that all we can get is another portrayal of times we’d like to move past. In comparison, white people get to enjoy love stories with happy endings, sci-fi adventures, superheroes, vampires and the like. But us? We get to see Black people accosted, bludgeoned, forcibly assaulted sexually, and slaughtered as if we aren’t hyper-aware of our cultural history—actually enslavement wasn’t Black history itself but rather stunted the development of Black history. So why is it that Black people keep receiving series and films about the same tired tropes that exploit our cultural history? Why are we constantly faced with trauma? Is it not enough that we see it on the news? That we read about it online and in school? We don’t need any more series or movies to tell us that we have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of white supremacists. Nor do we need anyone else to tell us that this country is rampant with anti-Black violence. That is quite apparent.

Woman sitting in dark movie theatre
Photo by Karen Zhao from Unsplash

I feel like, in a way, Black trauma has become pushed into the spotlight that a lot of people assume it isn’t a big deal; that they feel like because we talk about these issues more, that means things aren’t that bad. I think a lot of people forget that we’re people too. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they don’t forget, but just don’t believe that we are people. And one thing I’ve come to realize is that no amount of education or activism can combat one’s own willful ignorance. This information isn’t new nor is it surprising, at least for people like me.  Call me cynical, but I expect nothing short of abysmal from this country. But it’s still disappointing to see the face of Black cinema change so drastically. I think it’s beyond time to take a step back and re-evaluate the messages we consume from the media and question what’s being presented to us. More often than not the true meaning uncovered is insidious. The more you know (you know the rest). 

Ayanté Hardy

UC Riverside '21

How would I describe myself as a creator, as an individual? I don’t know I just love cynicism and chaos and villainy, color, texture, tenacity and audaciousness, just exhausting every facet of life, nauseating grandeur. I think my strength is that I know how to play it up but also reel that in when needed. I’d like to think I’m quite good at containing this dichotomy within myself and really letting that free in my creative or intellectual expressions. My articles are my interpretation of this notion.
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