Who Is It For?: Black Trauma and Those Who Consume It
Thirteen years ago, Crash was released in theaters. The film attempted to put post-9/11 race relations into perspective with a diverse range of characters and stories, but mostly it just perpetuated stereotypes and offered simplistic defenses of ignorance. Throughout the movie, several people endure numerous instances of racism and discrimination, but the black characters often suffer the most. A black woman is sexually assaulted by a police officer during a routine stop, her black husband is mistreated by white coworkers, and another unarmed black man is murdered by an off-duty cop. The entire film is difficult. Not only to watch, but to understand and to explain from a storytelling standpoint. However, even more challenging to comprehend is the larger purpose of the film in light of the way Crash and other similar works are digested by audiences.
Recently, I found myself in a classroom, sitting for what felt like a lifetime, as one of my professors surveyed the women in our class on their views of black men. Specifically, she wanted to know if any of them felt unsafe in the presence of black men, given the stereotypes surrounding African Americans. We had just watched Crash and she was hoping to find something—I have no idea what, exactly. Maybe a #relatable story about being racist?—that would connect us to the material about to be discussed. Predictably, no one volunteered any information. (I knew for a fact that I was in a class with some of the more problematic people I had met in college, but I also knew they were smart enough to save their opinions for another setting.) Since no one had any personal experience to share, what followed was a class period full of second-hand sharing from the white women in the class.
As I sat in the oversized circle—yes, we were sitting in a circle during this discussion—listening to my classmates discuss the pain of witnessing fictional and real-life racism, I wondered about the way black pain and black trauma are treated in our culture. In many cases, it is hard for depictions of oppression and racism to break new ground because the process of consuming them is so cyclical: the oppressed are forced to relive the pain of a reality they already know, and non-marginalized people are given a chance to commiserate from a distance before returning to their daily lives. In these cases, the question is clear: who are these productions really for?
A similar situation arose a little over a month ago with the release of When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s Netflix mini-series. By following the Central Park Five case and the lives of those involved, DuVernay brought a new look into one of the most infamous instances of black lives destroyed by a broken criminal justice system. Unlike Crash, When They See Us is based on a true story. In that way, DuVernay’s series distinguishes itself from other cases of black trauma on screen. When They See Us does not exist solely for the sake of provoking conversation, but for the purpose of public understanding. The five men at the center of the controversy deserve to have their stories told and to be in control of the way those stories are presented. Additionally, the creators themselves differ tremendously. Paul Haggis, the writer and director of Crash, is a white man, and one who’s other productions differ vastly. Seen in the context of the rest of his body of work, Crash does not exist as Haggis’ attempt at working toward reconciliation, but as a surface-level solution—and a successful bid for Oscar recognition—to a conversation that was beginning to trend at that time. DuVernay on the other hand, has spent her career bringing black stories to screen. Even more importantly, her work spans far beyond the confines of trauma. In addition to films like Selma and 13th, her resume includes Queen Sugar and A Wrinkle in Time, which feature black faces in a diverse collection of roles. However, I still wonder about the impact that a series like When They See Us is meant to have, and whether or not I need to be a part of the experience.
In the days following the release of When They See Us, I heard many of the same feelings echoed by the other black people in my life. A close friend told me he had avoided watching the series up to that point because he didn’t feel like dealing with the emotions that he knew would come with watching it. My mom began watching but stopped watching out of anger partway through the first episode (a sentiment also shared by other black parents who watched the series). I personally stopped midway through the third episode and haven’t been able to resume watching since.
When They See Us isn’t the first instance of black trauma being depicted on a large stage, and it certainly won’t be the last. Films like Detroit, Fruitvale Station, and 12 Years A Slave all fall into a similar category. There are several criticisms of this type of production, one of the most common being that they are simply repurposing black pain for profit. At some level I think this is why I won’t ever see 12 Years A Slave, no matter how many of my white professors lecture me on how “important” it is. Even when these projects are led by black creators seeking to affect change, the work frequently takes on a different meaning when consumed by white viewers. In other time periods, most notably the Civil Rights movement, images of black trauma were an effective way of showing the rest of the world how African Americans were being treated, and a reminder that our plight was still ongoing.
A similar purpose is still present in creations today, but the audience is less definable, which is reflected in the recognition given by mainstream outlets. With the exception of civil rights friendship narratives, on-screen depictions of black trauma are often the only ones applauded. Even then, these productions typically need to be set in a different era so that they can be lauded as proof of how far we have come, and how bad things “used to be” before they were fixed by our modern society. These examples of black trauma are not used as stepping stones to reconciliation, but as chances for proud progressives to show that they love black stories without fully interacting with the material being depicted. This is the formula for successfully selling the black experience.
The criticism that large film companies are profiting off of the hardships of black life is valid, especially when looking at the people who consume it most. But the reason so many black people have chosen to skip this particular genre comes down to one word: exhaustion. As a black man, I am constantly reminded of the way this country feels about me and those I love. What feels like every day, an unarmed black person is assaulted or murdered by the police, and the video evidence of it is promptly littered across my timeline. Every month I watch and listen as black voices call for change, and every month I watch those in power ignore them. Our criminal justice system is twice as likely to imprison a black woman compared to a white one, while one in three black men are incarcerated at some point in their lifetime. With this painful truth as our reality, it’s no wonder many people struggle to embrace this these stories as forms of entertainment. Within the first ten minutes of When They See Us, a thirteen-year-old boy is knocked unconscious by a cop while a group of other boys flee around him. Half an hour later, after a rigorous process of profiling and manipulation, more boys are assaulted—verbally and physically—in interrogation rooms before giving coerced confessions. The brutal depictions of these events need to be hard to watch in order to be effective, but for those well acquainted with the trauma being shown, the only effect is pain.
From what I have watched, Ava DuVernay has done an incredible job telling this story. The acting is incredible, and her ability to captivate and impact viewers as a director is on full display. The lives of the five men in this case were forever changed by forces they had no control over, and to see their stories fully explored through their eyes is gratifying. Most importantly, seeing the Central Park Five’s lives brought to the screen by a black director, someone who fully understands the weight of the situation, is a relief. It’s naïve to pretend that money played no part in the creation of this series but knowing that the person at the head of the ship was motivated by care, not greed, is a welcome change of pace. In short: it is the type of streaming product that will be present in conversations for months to come. However, despite the When They See Us-related talk that will flood countless conversations about race and incarceration in the coming months, the segment of black viewers declining to watch are justified in their decision. The effects of this mini-series are still uncertain, and maybe one day I will find myself drifting back to some of the films/shows I have avoided. But for now, I feel content in my decision to abstain. I hope that When They See Us helps shift the public—and mostly white—consciousness around the criminal justice system’s treatment of marginalized people, but based on the way similar works have been treated, I won’t get my hopes up.
About the author: Michael Miller is a Seattle Pacific University undergraduate student studying communication and political science. Outside of the classroom, you can find him watching and writing about music, sports, and culture.