MCN Commentary & Analysis

Can TV Engage Racism Without Being Racist?

I ran into this Vulture piece by Angelica Jade Bastién that is presented as a review of a new limited series this week. It is titled, “Them Is Pure Degradation Porn.

My first reaction was to roll my eyes. I think the series is masterful and perhaps the most significant fictional work on the experience of race in America that I have seen in a decade, in that it doesn’t patronize its victims/heroes nor offer safe harbor for its villains. To my eye, it produces so much empathy that it never becomes safe or comfortable. It does use the tools of supernatural and horror films. I don’t downgrade it for that.

I have been railing on for years about how critics tend to attack any film or tv show that makes them feel deeply uncomfortable… or really, just deeply. I find that critics are comforted by an intellectual distance, lest they not be, somehow, tricked into an emotion. Many of my favorite films have that distance (See: Kubrick and The Coens). But many do not. All art is a manipulation and I don’t object to artists pulling whatever strings they want to pull. My personal judgement of films/television take this as a given.

And make no mistake, Them is brutal. The first half of the season is unpleasant and the second half is agonizing much of the time. (Specifically, episodes 1-4 and then 5-10.) Some of the imagery is unbearable. Some of the choices forced me to watch episodes multiple times to figure out exactly what math the showmakers were attempting.

But as I read the piece, it quickly became clear that Bastién’s piece – in a phrase rarely heard from we creatures of the internet – is not about me. Not me as a critic nor as a white male.

Using the term “porn” in the headline suggests that to find value in this series is to get off on it (and racism) in some way, as there is little other value in porn. That makes “porn” a fighting word. I don’t believe anyone – aside from those who live encapsulated by fear and hate – is going to have fun watching this series, aside from appreciating the work. It is not frivolous. Few, if any, of the “horror” moments stand alone outside of the context.

I can’t claim to know what Bastién’s deeper motives are, but the feeling in reading a passage like, “left me spent after the grueling process of watching its virulent imagery,’ made complete sense to me. I, too, felt spent after watching Them‘s virulent imagery. So do most of the characters in the show. But where Bastién seems to have seen primarily abuse – including of the audience – in the imagery, I saw harsh reality and metaphor.

Digging past the excessive headline, this piece is not really an attack on the audience. It is primarily an accusation made against the show’s creators/showrunners as race traitors of some kind.

“‘In the future, white supremacy will no longer need white people.’ That future is now.”

The first sentence of that quote comes from the artist Lorraine O’Grady. Bastién runs with the ball from there.

“People of color sometimes participate in their own degradation and in the systems that damage our lives and, in many cases, cut them heartbreakingly short.”

Them — showrun and created by Little Marvin and executive produced by Lena Waithe — isn’t just rote, flagrantly biting the aesthetics of other filmmakers. It isn’t just morally bankrupt. It isn’t just grating in its empty platitudes and kiddie-pool-deep proclamations. I am comfortable calling it one of the most anti-Black pieces of pop culture I’ve seen in the last few years.”

“Epithets like “N – – – – ss,” “sow,” “animal,” “coon,” and “ape” are spit from the lips of white people, emphasizing Them’s obsession with showing the depravity of racism in extreme terms. But it doesn’t wholly consider just how damaging such language and imagery is not only for the psyche of the characters involved, but for the Black people in the audience who understand it on a visceral, intimate level.”

“Revels in degrading its Black characters in a way that left me questioning both the Black creators involved and the studio system that is eager for this kind of work.”

Them’s ugly core: It does not truly care about Black people. It only knows how to wring terror from the pain we experience.”

“Watching Them feels like compounded trauma. It doesn’t induce empathy or the desire for abolition in white folks. It doesn’t force others to consider the anti-Blackness they perpetuate. If anything, it lets modern white people off the hook, providing extremes with which they can distance themselves from their own racism. Little Marvin and Lena Waithe, like far too many Black creators in the industry, are not interested in challenging the status quo; they’re now a part of it. In doing so, they are cravenly using Black pain to line their pockets.”

Apparently, even Black American artists need to have their intentions and methods qualified by Bastién and/or others to be entrusted to offer their perspective in the aesthetic method of their choosing.

Bastién offers up other attacks, aimed at various targets, in the piece. But those were all familiar and almost cliche by now.

But speaking to that last paragraph quoted above, I feel like Bastién and I saw the same show and came to almost the exact opposite conclusion. I believe the show is about the horror of not being able distance oneself from racism, whether you are the victim or the perpetrator. If this show “lets (you) off the hook,’ you never saw yourself as on the hook in any way.

Bastién has no idea what the effect of the show on “white folks” will be. Nor do I. But my general sense is that it will most upset the most “woke” of the white american culture because it doesn’t let them off the hook as the good white people. The show openly and brutally tells the audience that these Black Americans are both victims of direct racism and of the deepest, ugliest fears that, somehow, they carry responsibility for that racism. It is one thing to be crystal-clear that this group does not deserve to carry guilt for what has been horribly thrust upon them… but to deny that such guilt exists – not only in racism, but in all forms of ism, including sexual abuse – is absurd. That denial is a slap in the face to the multi-layered and often incomprehensibly complex pains of victims.

I would argue, with some regret, that Bastién is taking power away from victims by so ferociously expressing her desire to protect victims from a TV show. As so many have, I have raged against the culture of The Right in america for these last 5 years+, but this is what I fear in the culture of The Left (aka My Neighborhood). Weaponizing the best of intentions.

“Hollywood’s belief that representation behind and in front of the camera will fix its inherent racism. (I’m not sure Hollywood can be saved, no matter how many people of color it ropes into its machinations.)”

“Hollywood” is not a monolithic organ. “It” doesn’t have an opinion. Not all of “Hollywood” wants to do better. Not all of “Hollywood” believes any one thing about anything.

Moreover, the belief Bastién suggests exists is held primarily by industryites of color and those who stand as true and active allies in the effort to correct the forever-problem in this industry (which is only 100 years old). A large chunk of the industry, young and old, just want the issue to go away and are not really interested in fixing inherent racism. That posture is to be condemned, but again, pretending it doesn’t exist is to spit in the wind.

Bastién – and she is not at all alone – is taking the bat to those most actively involved in trying to make things better. And if history serves, those people will duck, dip, and pretend it never happened. They have learned to take one for the team.

The big question for me is, in light of this piece, what is a good answer? Bastién seems to feel there may be no good answer. Hollywood may never be able to be “saved.” But let’s at least have some definition of what “saved” night look like. It seems to be a moving target.

The tone of the discussion of films and television and so much more has become absolutist-on-demand for many smart people. It is not enough to dislike something in the culture. Somehow, it is safer to believe that it cannot be saved. That thing must be killed.

The argument against braving intense and passionate arguments between strong, differing opinions has become to accuse those whose opinions differ from yours as dismissive of the pain of others. Self-protective and in denial.

And sometimes, it is.

So is dismissing alternate perspectives as though they don’t deserve consideration.

Both “sides” in these arguments are expressing the same concern… that their opinion will not be respected or seriously considered and/or ultimately embraced.

But that is the hard work. The closer the calls get, the harder it gets. The more dangerous it gets. And the more unlikely that a definitive answer will be produced. This is extremely frustrating. But it is the work.

I believe the show is under embargo, but I think it is safe to acknowledge that in Episode One of the upcoming Barry Jenkins series The Underground Railroad, a slave is tortured, hung by his upper body, and burned alive. The imagery is as brutal as anything in Them, though the overall context and tone is very different. The show, like Them, is paid for and presented by Amazon Prime and has a multiracial crew.

I don’t know what Bastién will say to that. But I am deeply curious.

This is where I see a tipping point. The two series have almost opposite presentation styles. But they cover a lot of the same ground, albeit more than 150 years separated by history.

It is unfair to make any individual the voice of a “side” in this. But will one series be seen as “well-intended” and one “badly intended” based on style and focus?

I have not seen the entirety of Jenkins’ work yet. But everything I have seen so far is masterful and poetic, especially when compared to the super-explicit rap lyric that is Them.

I believe that there are many absolutes in the areas of racism and abuse. But I also believe there are many more areas of gray. Somehow, we need to be able to get to the hard conversations about the gray areas without endless dismissing those who don’t agree with us… or who are not Us.

Bastién’s piece dashed my hopes for serious conversation amongst serious people. It wasn’t enough to aggressively dismiss the work, but she was compelled to attack the makers of the work and in a way that overwhelmed the angle of television criticism.

I didn’t include the quotes in this piece, but Bastién also cherry-picked quotes from interviews with the filmmakers and then analyzed them as further proof of the villainy in making this limited series. Did Amazon refuse the Vulture TV critic from access to the filmmakers so she could ask for answers directly? Unlikely.

Bastién’s piece should not be listed as a “TV Review.” I would have no objection to a piece by Bastién that included an interview or an effort to interview and challenge Little Marvin and/or Lena Waithe, whatever the outcome. Bastién is entitled to express her opinions as is anyone else. But there is a difference between a cultural argument and a tv series review.

In my long career at the keyboard, I did happen upon this problem once. I went after both Hostel 2 and Eli Roth. And I did it off a bootleg of the movie, which I had purchased in Seattle before the film’s release to see whether, indeed, the movie had been hijacked as reported. I felt strongly that Roth was getting off on the abuse of women in the film and I think I actually coined the phrase “horror porn” at the time. I should not have reviewed the film as I did. And I should not have attacked Eli so personally without making a real effort to talk to him before publishing my feelings about it. I regret this, probably more than anything I have done in the last 25 years of my career.

So, I get the urge. I get getting carried away and trying to use Thor’s hammer to kill a housefly. I don’t know Bastién and I don’t know how she will feel about the piece over time. (I was extremely self-righteous about it when I did it to Roth and was not generous to the studio in its efforts to talk me into a calmed space.)

But these days, I think the issue of how we all engage with one another is much more important, given social media’s power. And the subject here is race, which is always a third rail of engagement.

This piece is an effort to engage a conversation about engaging difficult conversation. I don’t know how it will be received. It may be ignored by the people I most wish to engage. It may get me buried under a passive aggressive avalanche. It may start one serious conversation between two friends who agree on most things, but get edgy when it comes to details.

It’s surely short a Kardashian or a Bachelor revelation if I ever thought it could reach a broader audience.

But it is my effort. And I hope it adds to the conversation, in any small way, rather than close the junctions of engagement even more.

5 Responses to “Can TV Engage Racism Without Being Racist?”

  1. Bradley Laing says:

    —I left a comment on the April 16th article. My posting is dated “7:27 pm” PST under April 18.

  2. Stella's Boy says:

    Bastién is far from the only person to feel that way about THEM. I wonder how much time fans of the series have spent considering Black trauma porn and what it’s like for viewers of color to watch something like what happens in episode five. Or, as the piece below discusses, the impact of showcasing Black pain and suffering in entertainment and the ways that can be psychologically and emotionally harmful, particularly for Black audiences. There is a huge difference between the way White and Black viewers watch and receive a series like THEM. It seems more valuable and productive to consider these things rather than pick apart a person of color’s analysis that is obviously going to be different from yours.

  3. Stella's Boy says:

    This reminds me of related discussions I’ve come across. I’ve heard podcasts and read comments about the trauma Black people experience while watching or hearing/reading about the videos that show people of color being killed by police. This one in particular is excellent: https://www.npr.org/2020/05/29/865261916/a-decade-of-watching-black-people-die

    Food for thought before we criticize how a Black person responds to THEM.

  4. David Poland says:

    So you agree that the Black filmmakers who made Them are anti-Black racists, Stella’s Boy?

  5. Jermsguy says:

    I’ve only watched ep 1, and it’s really good and I plan to keep watching, but this just makes me nervous what’s to come.

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