Black people are tired. And many say the fatigue they feel in real life is being exacerbated by Hollywood’s obsession with tragic Black stories. What’s worse is they feel Hollywood is profiting from their pain. It’s a phenomenon Moguldom founder Jamarlin Martin has dubbed “Hollywood Black Trauma Profit Fatigue.”
The cause of the fatigue has been collectively dubbed “Black trauma porn” by critics, according to the Los Angeles Times. In a recent article, the Times details how projects like Amazon Prime’s “Them,” Netflix’s “Two Distant Strangers” and others have caused an outcry from the Black community to stop using “the brutalization of Black bodies … as entertainment.” It also highlights the filmmakers’ justification for highlighting such gory images – such as a scene in “Them” which shows a Black infant being murdered while the mother is raped.
“THEM = another example of hollywood using black trauma to stimulate. It’s racial horror porn & I’m done supporting any of it,” user @BernetaWrites tweeted in response to another Black user’s tweet denouncing the show. “Last thing I watched in this genre was Get Out & the Breonna Taylor ep of Black Lightning. F**k Lena Waithe & black hollywood for pimping the struggle.”
In “Two Distant Strangers,” the Black male protagonist is stuck in a time loop in which he repeats the day over and over that a white police officer murders him. But it’s writer and director Travon Free said it depicts reality. “There’s no way to avoid the fact that the reality of being Black is often painful and often traumatic,” Free said.
Little Marvin, the creator and writer behind ‘Them” – which is also backed by Lena Waithe (who has taken much of the criticism) – echoed Free’s sentiments, stating he included disturbing images on purpose to relay how savage racism is.
But critics of Black trauma porn are not convinced and have noted it can weaken even the most resilient Black person’s heart. “For white audiences, these projects offer an opportunity to see things they may not see on a regular basis, while for Black folks, it’s the same old, same old. People are really sensitive and raw about the graphicness of the violence because, for them, it’s not entertainment,” Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University’s Chair of African and African American Studies, said.
“These directors and screenwriters are working in a world of fantasy. But the irony for Black folks is that it’s not a far cry from that fantastic world to the reality of how we live our lives. I can understand why they might want to push that away,” Neal added.
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In an op-ed published in The Independent in Jan. 2020, Shakeena Johnson wrote about Hollywood’s obsession with Black trauma. She expounded on why Black people are experiencing Hollywood Black Trauma Profit Fatigue.
“Since 2013, in other words, it seems as if the most fertile ground for black cinema has been trauma. And if the director wants an Oscar, they’ll throw in a white saviour for good measure,” Johnson wrote. “Yet the proliferation of black narratives feels excessive. Black people don’t need 50 police brutality films a year to remind us of the injustices we’ve faced and continue to face – we’ve been knowing. Imagine forcing Harriet Tubman or Solomon Northup to rewatch what they’ve lived through several times a year, supposedly for entertainment. … I’ve begun to wonder how much directors genuinely want to investigate black trauma, and how much they wish to profit from it, knowing it is a tried-and-tested path to critical acclaim.”
Others, including author Maryann Erigha, noted the pain of other racial groups hasn’t been handled the same way by Hollywood.
“People are right to say it’s alarming and that they find it traumatic. The depiction of Black death is permitted in mainstream media in a way that you don’t see at all with other racial groups. I don’t think it would be tolerated.”
University of Southern California Professor Robeson Taj Frazier added, “We’re living and having to navigate the constant terrorization of Black bodies and the destruction of our flesh and then having to endure that while you think you’re watching escapist fare in your household.”
Critics challenged Black storytellers to use their increased freedom to bring Black stories to the masses responsibly. Instead of focusing so heavily on Black pain, Johnson said they should focus on highlighting Black excellence and joy.
“Tales of black pain are a dime a dozen. Fewer and further between are storylines – like those of Moonlight (2016), Black Panther (2018), Sorry To Bother You (2018) and Little (2019) – that showcase black people living happy, healthy lives. I challenge Hollywood to make more of those films: films that leave us laughing, and will leave them laughing all the way to the bank,” Johnson wrote.