I first heard the term “trauma porn” last year when my cousin referred to the biographical movie about slavery, “Harriet.” I immediately became defensive because I thought a biopic about famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman was warranted. It wasn’t until the 2020 Oscar nominations were released that I realized what a problem it was that the only actor of color nominated was “Harriet” star Cynthia Erivo. For some reason, films focusing on the pain of black history gain more recognition than movies highlighting the triumphs. This isn’t just harmful to black viewers, but it also does a disservice to white viewers by contributing to black erasure.
“The imagination of white writers, white directors and white Academy members are limited by the white imagination which doesn’t think of black people as full embodied beings,” Chante Griffin, a race and culture writer, said. “Because they don’t really know us, they create and reward their ideas about us, which are really their projections onto us.”
Films that focus on the stories of enslaved people like Kasi Lemmons’s “Harriet” and Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” are the work of black directors. But movies like Tate Taylor’s “The Help” (which grossly missed the mark), Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and Steven Speilberg’s “The Color Purple” are not. Regardless of the director’s race, these movies keep getting made because studios are willing to put millions of dollars behind them.
“I haven’t seen many of the slave narrative movies because I haven’t wanted to support Hollywood’s obsession with our enslavement,” Griffin said. “Why do I want to pay money to see someone beat and rape my ancestors? That’s not entertainment. That’s brutality.”
Instead, she says she prefers to watch stories that feel closer to her own experiences. Movies like the romance “Love & Basketball” for instance. “The film explores the intersection of love, gender roles, and collegiate and professional basketball — all through the lens of black culture,” Griffin said. “I love these stories because they are our stories, real stories.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has motivated streaming services like Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video to showcase films featuring black people. There are empowering movie and TV show options, like “Just Mercy” available on Prime and “Pose” available on Netflix. However, it’s important to note that despite the overall positive themes in both movies, they also depict a lot of pain and injustice. Most of these movies and shows have race at the forefront. Where are the movies and shows where the characters just happen to be black? Why does being black have to be the main plot point while race isn’t even discussed in predominantly white movies? This unfair trend doesn’t go unnoticed by black audiences either.
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“I particularly enjoy romantic comedies, but when I think about it, the vast majority of these big-budget films have all-white or mostly white leads,” graduate student Melissa Bellerjeau said. “A recent exception to this is ‘The Lovebirds’ with Issa Rae that I thoroughly enjoyed. Another genre I really like is superhero films. Growing up, I didn’t really consider how I was missing out on black hero films. Then, ‘Black Panther’ came out and ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse.’ I love these movies. More importantly, I love that they give children heroes to look up to that look like them.”
Perhaps that’s the most important aspect of displaying black joy in popular culture: It shows that black characters can have a happy ending just like their white counterparts. It signifies that the black experience isn’t always a bleak one. Bellerjeau put it succinctly: “That is the beauty of film — it is a vehicle to joy.”
When it comes to more uplifting movies, political organizer Yasmine Hamou has a couple of favorites: “I love ‘This Christmas’ and ‘Akeelah and The Bee!’ They’re so lighthearted and sweet, and especially ‘This Christmas’ reminds me of all of the best parts of being black in America.”
As Hamou notes, there are indeed extraordinary aspects of being black in America. It’s time for Hollywood to finally start acknowledging that.
Some highly recommended black joyful films include “Brown Sugar,” “Coming to America,” “About Last Night,” “The Best Man,” “Drumline” and “Girls Trip,” which are all available to rent on Prime Video.