Netflix

Film / TVRace

“Black Museum” is Black Mirror’s most cleverly disguised example of black torture porn yet

January 11, 2018
By Brittany Willis* / RaceBaitR, AFROPUNK contributor

I spent the latter part of my holiday break binge watching Black Mirror, mostly because of the hype surrounding the fourth season, but also because I love all things horror and sci-fi. The show had been sitting on my Netflix queue for months. Perhaps, due to the buzz, I was expecting to be impressed, or at the very least, engaged. But considering the very first episode was about an elected official being forced to have sex with a pig, and my realization that the show is exhaustingly white, I got bored rather quickly.

I went to fans of the show and shared my initial objections. Of course I got the “just wait, it gets better” responses, but some named specific episodes that proved the series was worth sticking with. One of those episodes was “White Bear.”

This episode features Victoria, a Black woman who awakens with no memory of who or where she is. To make matters worse, she is being chased by masked individuals who seem intent on killing her, and almost everyone around would rather record her terror than actually help. From the onset, I was intrigued with “White Bear.” It was suspenseful, the acting was finally tolerable, and its whole premise reminded me of the slasher horror flicks I love. I thoroughly enjoyed the episode… right up until the gross ending.

It turns out that Victoria is the subject of a theater-like production in which she is tortured every day for a crime she and a former partner committed. The people chasing and helping her are actors, and the people recording are indeed voyeurs who come to watch her torture up close. Her memory is erased every day—through a painful process—but not before she learns the truth of what’s actually happening to her, and then marched, in a glass cage, through a parade of people shouting obscenities and death wishes towards her. And all of these people involved in torturing a Black woman are white.

After my anger subsided, I oscillated between confusion and annoyance. I was confused as to why some Black folks thought this would be a good episode to recommend to me. I was annoyed with myself for even getting angry, since it should be expected for white people to write and produce an episode like “White Bear” and think it’s acceptable.

It was at this point that the lens through which I was watching Black Mirrorwas sharpened. I started paying closer attention to how the show treats its Black characters. Simply put, Black Mirror does not care about Black people. More specifically, the writers of the show don’t care about the future of Black people, having created a future world in which Black people exist in the same monolithic box to which we have already been relegated in real life today.

In Black Mirror’s world, Black people either don’t exist or aren’t visible enough to be worth mentioning, don’t love and are not paired with each other, or they are experiencing some form of pain and suffering. If you’re lucky, you may be able to get two of the three in a single episode. The exceptions being “Playtest” and “Nosedive,” though I’m not sure how much of an exception either is. The former features a Black woman who might as well be a villain, and the latter briefly features three Black people in a world where social media ranking equals social currency, and none of them are socially acceptable.

By the time I watched the season four finale, “Black Museum,” I was fully expecting the show to be on its best racist behavior. Based on the title alone, I mentally prepared for an episode about a museum with multiple exhibits showcasing Black people suffering. Luckily, this wasn’t the case. Black pain was just the main attraction.

In “Black Museum,” Nish (Letitia Wright), a Black woman, listens to the white museum’s curator tell stories about criminology artifacts before seeing the main exhibit, a hologram of Clayton Leigh (Babs Olusanmokun), a Black man in a cell. Clayton was coerced into giving his consciousness to the curator, believing it would ensure his family’s financial security. The curator then placed Clayton’s consciousness inside a hologram and forced him to relive his execution at the whim of museum visitors who felt inclined to watch him die.

It’s then revealed that Nish is Clayton’s daughter, with her mother’s consciousness inside her, and she’s actually there to kill the curator and free her father.

As much as this finale was an ode to the show itself—with callbacks and Easter eggs from previous episodes—it was also a culmination of the various ways Black Mirror likes to subject its Black characters to violence.

The repeated torture Clayton experiences is similar to that of Victoria in “White Bear.” Coercing Clayton to participate in his own harm and exploiting his pain is similar to the experiences of Black characters in “Fifteen Million Merits” and “Men Against Fire.”

The only difference is that we finally see the protagonist get revenge, which is quite satisfying. But is it enough? No.

“Black Museum” definitely offers us a futuristic retelling of the “slave revolt” narrative. There’s no denying that Nish is the embodiment of Black uprising, both past and present. This offering becomes stale, however, when you consider the scope of Black Mirror and the manner in which its characters and stories are crafted.

In a show that centers the destructiveness of white people, Charlie Brooker—show creator and writer—is not intentional about the message being delivered to the audience when the victims of that destruction are Black people. So, it almost feels like the revenge plot of “Black Museum” is pandering and/or Brooker fumbling through what he thinks is a solution.

We can’t really trust the authenticity of Nish’s monologue about activists and white supremacists when Brooker so easily writes supremacist characters—e.g. Baxter (“White Bear”) and Hope (“Fifteen Million Merits”)—without acknowledging that their evilness is a byproduct of their whiteness. We can’t truly relish in her vengeance knowing that Brooker has never offered retribution to previous Black characters who have suffered at the hands of white people.

Ironically, while “Black Museum” is, explicitly, a send-up of Black Mirror, it is implicitly an indictment of the show as well. The episode is a jarring analogy of Black pain and white people’s willing consumption of it. Consequently, Black Mirrorinadvertently reveals itself as a proprietor in the commodification of Black suffering. Its viewers, like Black Museum visitors, can not only hear cautionary tales of technology and science, but also view Black violence without consequence. That violence is quite rudimentary, yet more harrowing than the other “exhibits.” As each subsequent visitor becomes more and more numb to Clayton’s anguish, so too does Black Mirror’s audience with each display of Black suffering throughout the series.

Just as Nish killing the curator doesn’t free the pieces of her father that are still eternally suffering, watching that scene doesn’t atone for all the timesBlack Mirror was unimaginative in its depiction of Black people.

I dare not ask Brooker and other white sci-fi writers to be more creative in their portrayals of Black existence, because I actually don’t think they’re capable of this type of imagination. For white people, Black existence is one-dimensional and predicated on the survival of whiteness. This is why Nish saves the white woman whose consciousness is trapped inside of a teddy bear instead of just saving her father and burning everything else down.

I don’t expect white people to ever get it right. What I expect, or hope for, is that we do a better job of recognizing when they are wrong, and continue creating our own worlds where our existence has evolved as much as the technology and science has.

Related Reading:

Black Mirror: ‘Black Museum’ Reckons With America’s History of Commodifying Black Pain, Ashley Nkadi (The Root)

Black Mirror’s “Black Museum”: The slave revolt fantasy Hollywood never intended to make?, Hari Ziyad (Black Youth Project)

Why Black Mirror‘s Most Controversial New Episode Is Its Most Important, Jason Parham (Wired)

In Black Museum, Black Mirror finally finds a single person to blame for technology, Adi Robinson (The Verge)

This post is in partnership with RaceBaitR.

*Brittany Willis is a proud Baltimore City native. She is a teacher, writer, special education advocate, womanist, and Blerd who loves Black children, Serena Williams, and Beyoncé. Follow more of her stories at medium.com/@heymisswillis

Related