what is a is the picture worth? More precisely, what is the image of a dead black man worth? If you had to guess, how far do you think an image of a fatally injured black man would go, his body freezing against the sidewalk like a pool of blood – in the shape of africa, just in case the symbolism isn’t clear – shapes next to it?
Not sure? Too uncomfortable a thought? According to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, this man – and the story of his death, rather than the story of his life – is worth Hollywood’s highest honor: Oscar gold.
James, fortunately, is not a real person. Played by rapper Joey Badass, he is the fictional protagonist of Two distant strangers, a film by writer and comedian Travon Free which won the award for best live action short at the ceremony on Sunday night. James, unfortunately, is meant to be a symbol. It is meant to represent the blatant inevitability of black manhood in America: a target of white supremacist terror.
The film exploits a sci-fi gadget to make its point. Thought groundhog day, but the horror. James is stuck in a time loop, and what starts off as the best day of his life turns into his worst – and last. The real depravity of the plot lies in the way his disappearance unfolds: During the course of the film, James dies exactly 100 times at the hands of a white policeman. If being killed 100 times seems extreme, if it sounds disturbing, that’s the point – the visceral horror of a black man to death by a cop, suggests the film, is a nightmare blacks can never wake up from.
Everywhere you look black people are terrorized and killed – harassed walking in the street, arrested and questioned while driving. Through shaking camera and phone images we see them shattered without a second thought. The spectacle of pain is relentless, a nauseating recitation of trauma that calls attention to the end of a life, not what happened during it. In recent years, camera phone recordings have played a vital role in amplifying racial problems. But awareness and amplification come at a price. For black people, the cost of attention is a constant reminder of our suffering. The phenomenon cannot be escaped, no matter how hard you try. From reality on television to social media, everything is consuming. It’s all the time. It will never end.
And so the the machines of pop culture dutifully spin, relying on images imbued with a sort of retrograde myopia. The last instance is Them. An Amazon series centered on a working-class black family moving to a white Los Angeles suburb in the early 1950s, it comes to the same conclusion as Two distant strangers: Blacks and black life are objects of non-desire. Misery is the only lens through which we meet and understand the Emory family. They are subjected to beastly abuse, but other horrors lurk in their new neighborhood, some more obvious than others. They are surrounded by suffering, hate. They cannot escape it. This is the reason they fled North Carolina and also what greets them in sunny and seemingly heavenly Compton. The series recycles the same stomach-spinning vision of pain and the cultural void that is rewarded on social networks, the kind of fare that revolves around the physical and cultural theft of the body.
At a time Them and Two distant strangers, the bodies are beaten. Again and again the bodies are beaten. Bodies are raped, bodies are burned, bodies are fetishized, bodies are killed. The bodies become vectors of an unimaginable vitriol, of an artisanal racism. And in this version of black suffering, in this hokey, all-too-easy symbolism, there is a danger in being a witness, in seeing such continuing torment. For these projects, being Black means being traumatized, alone and always.