You need to see black men as they actually are–especially if you don’t have experience with that.
Media images of black guys are overwhelming negative. Lately, we’ve seen the relentless circulation of violence in phone videos. Many of us react with horror and empathy. But lots do not. These images did not start with Rodney King. They started with lynching photography. And for white people, compassion and horror have not been automatic. Violent photographs of blacks did not start out signaling what they actually represent: unimpeachable evidence of crimes.
TV and movies are the ground zero of representation. They connect to real life because they train us in how to view the world. The first films in America (circa 1895) were deeply racist and also obsessed with blackness. By the time we got to The Birth of a Nation (check out D.J. Spooky’s 2007 remix) the popular stereotypes around blacks were set. And these false images persist in circulation.
Who gets seen? And more importantly? How and why?
When movies need a drug dealer they cast black guys. Same with pimps and dolts. If they need background characters running around as doctors, diplomats or scientists, you probably won’t see a brown face.
Yes, we have stars like Denzel Washington and Will Smith. But if you pay attention, the inequality is obvious. Consider Morgan Freeman. Often cast as the Voice-of-God, but he’s usually a guiding mage for white characters. In Shawshank Redemption, Million Dollar Baby and An Unfinished Life, his character is happy to sit around and watch white guys do all the important action. From a cell-like space even when he’s not technically jailed.
When John Boyega was cast in the lead role in the new Star Wars movie, people protested against it.
In Game of Thrones, you have an army of castrated black guys. In the new HBO prestige drama, The Night Of you’ll see a black guy in a supporting role yakking about “weed” and women with “fat asses.” Empire is huge right now but it centers on a family of criminals.
You’ve probably seen The Green Mile. I’ve never understood why this film is so beloved. Because it depicts how a bunch of “nice” white guys (led by Tom Hanks) get to electrocute a black man who they know is innocent. (See section 7.1 of my dissertation).
Here are the steps you can take:
- Think about your favorite movies and TV shows and consider their racial make-up. It’s not enough if they feature lots of blacks or minorities.
You have to notice what is going on with those people of color.
- Can you identify with them?
- Are they the hero?
- Do they drive the plot?
- Do they have your sympathy and interest?
Do you get to see them in a lot of close-ups where you are face-locked with their visage, clamped to their eyes? Because that’s the primary technical mode that gets audiences to empathize with the hero. Eye contact. Through connections to their faces.
These media images are so important because they trained you to see culture in a hierarchical mode.
One where white people are normal, heroic and important. And blacks are criminals in the margins.
It’s bad enough to settle for this in popular entertainment, but it’s deadly when these same ideas govern the way you see and understand real life.
Because these images are not the real story.
- Now go to Twitter and check out the hashtag #BlackManJoy. It was started by activist @FeministaJones. She wanted black men to post pictures of themselves representing self-love and joy. (Then the posts were taken over by women—it is what it is.)
Go look at the pictures.
You’ll get to see images of Black men as they actually are. As human beings.
These images need to spill beyond Twitter and become mainstream and conventional. These are the images that need to be the ground zero of how we see black men. We need to reform and redress how we see and represent all people of color and minorities. But’s that a bunch of separate convos.
Today it’s #BlackManJoy.