Following the release of Two Distant Strangers and the subsequent and justified backlash it received, I realised just how much I despised films that are only dedicated to glamourising black trauma. The release of 12 Years A Slave when I was 16, the film that catapulted Lupita Nyong’o to fame, was the first time I realised this. And whilst I admired seeing a dark-skinned woman finally receive praise for not only her talent but her beauty, something about it felt disingenuous and uncomfortable. Why was I only seeing myself represented when the narrative centred around the pain and suffering of slavery?
It’s why, despite my admiration of Lupita, I could never actually bring myself to sit through it. Almost 2 and a half hours of what I can only imagine were uncomfortable and painful truths that I am already too familiar with. I always felt an internalised guilt for what I perceived as an inability to support the work of my own people until I realised the true reason for my aversion. I despised seeing my people portrayed in such a negative light. It’s almost as if Hollywood has this love affair with seeing our pain, our past, our struggle, our death. Nothing else.
The release of Black Panther in 2018 was such a significant moment for the black diaspora everywhere because we were allowed to see ourselves as strong, intelligent and beautiful. The world was finally able to see how incredible we could be. Lupita was in a role that I could actually look to with pride. It was the movie that gave me hope that we were actually progressing in how we portrayed black people in entertainment.
But in the wake of the protests against the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others at the hands of the police in America, the last thing anyone thought to see was those same stories fictionalised and sensationalised. I had no clue what Two Distant Strangers was about until I saw the trailer on Twitter. I could not even bring myself to watch the full thing through. From the repetitive acts of brutality used as an ‘artistic’ plot device, to the meaningless symbolism in the main character's death (see the pool of blood in the shape of Africa). It all felt very transparent, lazy and most importantly disrespectful. What made it worse was when Cynthia Kao, a prominent Asian-American TikToker, claimed that the idea of the movie’s plot was ‘stolen’ from her own rendition of ‘Groundhog Day for a Black Man’. Claims that were subsequently refuted, but brought up questions surrounding the acceptability of a non-black person of colour using our pain for entertainment and wanting to profit from it.
It became clear to me that we, as black people, have inadvertently allowed ourselves to be portrayed this way. We complain about how we only receive representation when it comes to suffering but find ourselves encouraging it by watching. Black filmmakers’ focus has seemingly been stuck on one particular plot theme and any exploration of black existence without pain can only exist in fantasy. It’s understandable that we should tell the stories of our ancestors and what they endured. We must let the world know what happened to us does not solely exist in the past. It is educational and informative. But it should not be the only way we are allowed to be seen. TV shows have started adding ‘police brutality’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’ plot lines to be seen as more progressive and accepting. And whilst it is informative, it seems like they only use black characters as mules to educate their white and non-black counterparts. Is it simply too difficult to have a show centred around black people, that is also representative of dark-skinned black people where the plot device is us living and being joyful? It is obvious that the reality of existence can be separated from navigating systemic racism which is why we turn to our existence in fantasy as a form of escapism. However, I do still believe we can rid ourselves of the consistent glorification of black death.
It’s about time that we, as black people, collectively stopped pandering to the media's portrayal of us. We cannot continue to feed into this notion that we enjoy seeing our pain being marketed to the world as entertainment. It’s harmful to allow ourselves to be taken advantage of like this. Non-black people looking to be allies should also consider refusing to watch such shows. If you enjoy this particular brand of ‘trauma porn’ then it is blatantly clear that you do not actually care about black lives. In my own unintentionally minutely radical way, I have allowed myself to consume media whose intent is to uplift and celebrate blackness and black joy. Not only has it given me hope for diversity on the big screen, but it has also helped me realise that we can exist on TV with that existence being made political. We deserve to see more of that.
Written by Tennille Rolingson