Published on January 27, 2023.
By: Priscilla Wiredu
If you were asked to compile a list of the most memorable Black movies you had viewed in your lifetime, chances are, you would probably include classics like Boyz n The Hood (1991), Juice (1982), or Baby Boy (2001). Most Black American movies deal with the topic of either the “hood,” slavery, or a combination of how slavery, racism, and gang behaviour have impacted Black people.
One should ask: why do so many movies deal with these issues? Is that what Black culture is made up of? The obvious answer is no; Black culture is made up of many important, diverse, and positive influences. Yet, the most famous and beloved movies tend to be the most interesting when it comes to Black pain rather than success.
Take a look at Amazon’s 2021 series “Them.” This horror drama focuses on a Black family who moves into a white LA neighborhood in the 1950s. They have to confront racism from their neighbours and a more sinister supernatural evil.
Many critics and viewers claim that this series was another cash cow that profited off Black pain. Writer Berneta L. Haynes claimed that “Them” was just another show entertaining the concept of Black trauma to appeal to Black Hollywood filmmakers and white executives.
“Them” was criticized as one of the most anti-Black pieces of pop culture by Vulture critic Angelica Bastien. NPR writer Aisha Harris argues that the series plays on the same reality of Black homicide in the United States where the hundreds of Black victims are written off as statistics or hashtags in death.
The Dangers of Black Pain and Profit
Of course, “Them” is just a contemporary example. Many Black movies have showcased the torture Black Americans have faced on American soil, from the Atlantic slave trade and slave catchers, to the Civil Rights Movement, and police brutality.
Insitutional racial injustice and discrimination has compelled hundreds of years of rage and resistance from the Black community—a seemingly never-ending dispute between these communities, the government, and legal system. Nowadays, these fights are receiving more recognition in the media. It should be understood, though, that with Black pain, there is always room for exploitation.
Allyship is an important concept when fighting injustice, and Black people value allyship—as long as it is done right. Ever since the Black Lives Matter movement and the explosion of resilience after the 2020 George Floyd incident, many self-proclaimed allies have often joined in the movement for personal gain.
Several brands, companies, and corporations have dealt with criticism for advocating social justice when their own practices do not embrace diversity. Media outlets have also been accused of sensationalizing stories of Black victims of police brutality just to garner higher ratings and a wider audience for viewing. It has become a regular pattern for news stations.
Sometimes the allyship is strictly performative, when the support for the Black community dissipates as the outrage cools down. When the story of a Black victim becomes “stale” after a few weeks, what happens to the promises of more action? What happens to the support from institutions and individuals capable of creating an impact against racial injustice? What happens to commitment?
The concept of performative allyship has become a common practice where Black pain and trauma is used for corporate profit. The issues regarding pain—violence, racism, marginalization—are ignored until there is an opportunity for profit through the advertisement of activism or charitable behaviour.
For example, look at the 2017 Pepsi advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner. In this advertisement, Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to a smiling police officer on the other side of the protest line, which is a frivolous interpretation of the anti-police-violence protests.
Both Pepsi and Jenner received backlash for this misstep, and this advertisement now works as a prime example of how advertisers undermine socio-political issues in order to profit off of audiences’ emotions.
Pain and trauma have, unfortunately, become a major staple in the Black experience in America, beyond psychological distress. This pain has been manipulated over the years for Western cultural profit, be it in the form of art, music, pop culture, and especially politics.
Movies and shows that portray Black struggle and sacrifice make millions, because Western audiences want to see the struggle and in a way, try to empathize with them. The issue that lies within is the fact that those responsible for this exploitative behavior rarely do anything practical to solve the injustices and treatment of victims.
What Happens When Black Pain Is Exploited?
Depicting Black pain in the media can help but also hurt Black people when it comes to fighting for justice. Black Lives Matter have taken positive strides in fighting against anti-Black violence and discrimination. However, exploiting Black trauma is the antithesis of everything BLM stands for, because it undermines the struggle for racial equality, equating it to just a minor request for public sympathy.
Black people do not need additional trauma to intercept their current life experiences, and their outrage is a call for radical change in every system that permits or tolerates racism.
Aside from desensitization, exploiting Black pain perpetuates the stereotype where their worth is based on the degree of their trauma. Black people have more to discuss about than their pain, and want to be recognized as such.
Black people can only achieve so much without fair treatment and equal opportunity, and they do not need to earn it by projecting outrage at Black violence.
Debra Walker King, an associate professor of English at the University of Florida says in her 2008 book African Americans and the Culture of Pain: “Pain is employed as a tool of resistance against racism. But it also functions as a sign of racism’s insidious ability to exert power and maintain control of those it claims.”
What Can be Done?
There have been steps taken to offer different forums for Black people to indulge in rather than pain. Some movies have dealt with different genres, (e.g. Black Panther and Spiderman’s Miles Morales) and some films have talked about racism , but in more coherent, less exploitative ways (e.g. Get Out, Us).
Even though it is important to address Black pain in films, it is also paramount to learn more about Black resilience and Black successes. In 2021, The Crimson White published an article called “Blood Money: When will the film industry stop taking advantage of Black pain?”
This article discusses investing time into viewing pro-Black films that show Black people in a positive light, as well as their history and accolades.
Here is a list of five biopics that discuss Black empowerment that tell a different story other than the tiring, cliche ones, of Black violence and victimhood.
This 1992 biopic tells the story of Malcolm X—his life, his struggles, and his fight for Black justice in America. It is a true story that focuses on conveying his religious journey, thought-provoking perspectives, and his family.
This 2015 biopic is centered on the well-known West Coast rap group N.W.A. Produced by former member Ice Cube. The film follows the group’s rise to fame and fallout during the 80s and 90s. Combating systemic racism, police brutality, and fights among themselves and gangs, Straight Outta Compton helps capture the true Black experience.
Famous Singer Beyonce Knowles wrote, directed, and produced this musical that tells the story of “The Lion King.” The retelling of the story is done in a way that honours the story’s African roots. This version tells the story of a young African prince fighting to reclaim his throne and honor, as the film depicts the true power of the Black identity and all of its capabilities.
This Netflix film, produced by award-winning filmmaker Ava Duvernay, exposes the legacy of trauma within American history, relating to the Black community. What makes this film unique —as opposed to other Black trauma films—is that the conversation shifts to a systemic issue (i.e. mass incarceration). Duvernay goes on to explain how prisons are a form of modern day slavery, and the statistics that exemplify how disproportionately Black bodies are incarcerated.
This 2011 documentary addresses the history of the Black Panther Party, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis. It fuses together footage from the antiwar and Black power movements during the 1960s and 70s to relay the true stories of this crucial era in Black history.
Priscilla Wiredu is a writer for this year’s Black Voice project. An alumni of York University, she graduated with Honors where she studied Social Sciences. She then went on to get an Ontario Graduate certificate in Creative Writing from the Humber School for Writers, and a college certificate in Legal Office Administration at Seneca College. She is currently studying for the LSAT in hopes of going to law school. Her main goal as a Black Voices writer is to ensure Black issues and Black Pride are enunciated through her works.