Fruitvale Station. The Hate U Give. Time: The Kalief Browder Story. Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story. Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland. In recent years, films about Black death at the hands of police have taken over the big and little screens. Whether blockbusters starring your favorite actors, or documentaries featuring families and friends of victims, there’s been no shortage of movies putting a lens on the devastation and effects of police brutality across the U.S.
In theory, it makes sense that these films are being made. Images of Black bodies strewn about after being gunned down, Black girls being slammed to the ground in nothing but their swimsuits and more have become the norm on news broadcasts, online articles and social media feeds. With it all at the forefront, it’s natural for creatives to want to tell these victims’ stories through film. But every time a new project comes out, I find myself going back and forth about whether or not I want to watch and put myself through the tears and anger yet again. The answer always ends up being yes, though I can’t help but wonder, “Are these production companies benefiting from black pain — be it the pain of the victims, their families or Black viewers like myself who are supporting by tuning in?”
In Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance, bell hooks writes about the commodification of the black body, emphasizing that treating minority bodies as objects to be consumed by the mainstream through art like music videos, books and film offers whites an opportunity to explore our world for a short team, having the option to leave when they choose. All the while, the production companies behind these projects are profiting from it. She explains, “the overriding fear is that cultural, ethnic and racial differences will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate – that the Other will be eaten, consumed and forgotten.”
At the end of the day, this is what concerns me most when it comes to these films. Is something as heavy as our pain being consumed and then quickly disregarded by viewers, while we have no choice but to hold onto it?
Movies about Black death and police brutality allow white audiences to show where they stand as they support inherently anti-racist art. For two hours, they glimpse into our worlds and experience the heartbreak that we feel when we see our brothers and sisters dying on our Twitter feeds every other week. They sometimes may even cry about it, as Amandla Stenberg said white viewers did when watching The Hate U Give. The leading lady in that film, which is based on the Angie Thomas novel centered around the Black Lives Matter movement, said that “we have a lot of white people crying, which is great. I’ve never seen so many white people crying before.”
Are there white folks out there whose support extends beyond buying tickets to these movies and some temporary tears? Sure. Do white allies exist who are standing strong in our corners, doing the work with us? Of course. But unlike Blacks, they still have the privilege to leave it all behind. They don’t have to live every day worrying that they (or their brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, etc.) may be targeted, or worse, gunned down for simply being. They don’t have to face race-related PTSD, which is real within the black community as one out of 10 of us deal with it in some form.
And while all of this is true, and it sucks that this is the case, I’d be remiss to treat these films as if they are all bad. It is certainly important work that is being done. These are stories that need to be told. Unfortunately, there are people who wouldn’t know who Sandra Bland was unless we said her name. Kalief Browder’s story may have fallen under the radar without it being told with the help of Jay-Z. Oscar Grant’s tragedy might not have rung a bell to so many had Michael B. Jordan not played him so effectively.
So how does one grapple with these films? Do we as Black people support them knowing that companies that are not often led by people of color are profiting from our hurt? Is it wrong for us to put our dollars behind these movies knowing that white folks are able to dip in and out of our worlds through them?
The commodification of our pain is real, and these movies are a perfect example of that. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. When considering whether or not you want to support these projects, I encourage you to do your research. Find out who is behind them and how the families of the victims are involved. Are they on board, or even participants within these stories? As Sandra Bland’s sister, who was a big part of her recent HBO documentary explained, “We fight and we keep fighting. The reason we persisted is because we learned very early on about the importance of narrative control and the fact that no one can tell your story better than you can.”
No one can tell our stories better than we can, and no one can support us better than we can either. Our voices need to be heard, and as long as the people close to the victims are at the table when creating these films, it may do more good than harm after all for us to continue to watch.