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Black satire is having its Hollywood moment, but something is missing

Black satire is having its Hollywood moment, but something is missing


In 2017, Jordan Peeles Get Out was a critical and commercial success that immediately became one of the defining films of the Trump era. The following year, Boots Riley's masterful Sorry to Bother You seemed to herald a new golden age for dark satire films. But while those films were notable for using surreal twists and turns to unpack complex ideas like racial appropriation and consumer culture with humor and horror, the crop that followed didn't keep pace. The current moment is defined by a central question: What does blackness look like in today's satirical black films? Too often lately, it's not dark enough.

By this I mean that a recent influx of films, including The American Society of Magical Negroes, American Fiction, and The Blackening, have failed to represent blackness in all its complexity, as sometimes messy, sometimes contradictory. Instead, they flatten and simplify blackness to serve a more singular, and therefore digestible, form of satirical storytelling.

The best example is American fiction, inspired by Percival Everetts' 2001 novel Erasure, which won this year's Academy Award for Best Screenplay. In the film, a black author and professor named Monk (played by Jeffrey Wright) finds literary success through My Pafology, a novel satirizing books that fuel negative black stereotypes. But Monk's audience received his book with sincere praise, forcing him to reconcile his newfound prosperity with his racial ethic.

The surface layer of satire is obvious: White audiences and publishing professionals who celebrate My Pafology do so not because of its merits but because the book allows them to fetishize another tragic black story. It is a performance of racial acceptance; these fans are literally buying into their own white guilt.

In the film, Monks highlights another black author, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), who publishes a popular book about sensationalized black trauma about life in the ghetto. Profiting from its white audience's racist assumptions about blackness, Sintara is this satire of the race traitor, or so it seems at first glance. Because when, in one scene, Monk questions whether Sintara's book is different from My Pafology, which she considers pandering, she counters that it highlights an authentic black experience. Sintara accuses Monk of snobbery, claiming that his pretentious notion of blackness excludes other black experiences because he is too ashamed to acknowledge them.

But the fact that it is Sintara who criticizes Monk in the film shows how reluctant American fiction is to make a value statement about the characters' actions in the context of their blackness. Sintara, who Monk overhears reading White Negroes, a text about black cultural appropriation, is not somehow presented as the hypocrite or inauthentic pointing out the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of the hero.

This adaptation seems to misunderstand that Erasure is as much a critique of how white audiences perceive the art of these black characters and their identities as it is of how the characters decide to manipulate or contradict those perceptions. American Fiction takes the easy way out by agreeing with both of these characters, a decision that undermines the nuances of how Monk and Sintara negotiate themselves as black people and the ethical weight of their choices.

In the equally watered-down comedy-horror film The Blackening, a group of black college friends gather in a secluded cabin for a Juneteenth celebration. Once there, the friends are chased and threatened by unknown assailants and forced to play a minstrel-style quiz game proving their blackness.

The racial satire of The Blackening is simple: the villains are white people who appropriate, sell, and kill black bodies. And the whole concept of the film is based on this common trope in racist horror films in which the black character is the first to die.

Like American fiction, it falls into the trap of building its scaffolding from an outsider's view of blackness, as something defined by whiteness and reactionary against it. The result is another film that neglects being too dark and skimps on an inside look at blackness that can sometimes contradict or betray itself. Blackness is so uniquely defined that these black friends celebrate Juneteenth, and the game asks them questions about rap lyrics and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that neither the plot action nor the comedy surprises. The reveal that the nerdy black character voting for Trump (played by Jermaine Fowler) is the real villain is obvious, and says little on a satirical level beyond that illegitimate or inauthentic blackness is dangerous and easy to spot.

The American Society of Magical Negroes, a title that refers to a particular character seen in films like The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance, also fails to offer a three-dimensional representation of blackness. In the film, a meek black man named Aren (Justice Smith) is introduced to the titular group by longtime member Roger (David Alan Grier). Aren initially denies being concerned about race, but then accepts his role as a magical ghostwriter until his love life intersects with his first mission, forcing him to choose between embracing free will over his own life and defying society.

The fantastic central idea of ​​the film, however, is more spectacle than substance. For most of a movie that's supposed to poke fun at a trope of racist characters, it's ironic that we don't see much of these characters beyond their acting into that trope. Arens Blackness seems tellingly incidental despite being central to the plot. His biracial identity is sidelined, even though it seems like an important character detail to explore in a satire about forbidden racial roles.

The one-sided satirical approach of these films can, to some extent, boil down to a failure of writing. But there is another factor that comes into play in box office politics. The most obvious satire, dealing with white oppression and guilt, seems aimed at white liberal audiences so that they can feel in on the joke. Black audiences, on the other hand, are left with a simplified representation of their race that doesn't dare be too controversial.

Just a few years ago, Get Out and Sorry to Bother You each offered their own satire on how whiteness can destroy the black psyche. While both films construct their action around the absurd ways in which whiteness sabotages the protagonists on a societal level, they differ from more recent satires by representing, either metaphorically or literally, spaces of black interiority or consciousness damaged by whiteness. In Get Out, it is the black hero's entrapment in the Sunken Place that has become one of the defining metaphors of its era. In Sorry to Bother You, the hero's moment of truth arrives when he must choose between retaining his identity and class status, or continuing to use racial performance to gain influence and success, and losing his humanity.

There is one recent exception to the recent wave of mediocre noir satirical films: Netflixs They Cloned Tyrone. In the film, a drug dealer named Fontaine (John Boyega), a pimp named Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx) and a prostitute named Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris) discover an underground agenda at work in their town. Black residents are cloned, experimented on, and mind-controlled via rap music and stereotypically black products like fried chicken and chemical relaxers.

But satire works both ways. The film cleverly makes the three main characters aware of the stereotypes they carry. They wonder if these roles serve them or if they serve the racist storylines unfolding around them. Fontaine eventually discovers that the big bad is the original Fontaine, who initiated the cloning process and is attempting to whitewash blacks into whites in the manner of another famous satire, Black No More. Through this twist, They Cloned Tyrone shows how racism can subvert the very spirit of the marginalized.

They Cloned Tyrone succeeds in its depiction of authentic blackness compared to other recent satires. It's not just about the way the characters speak or the exaggerated depictions of their lives; it’s also about their internal conflicts, their choice to submit to a racist narrative, and their degree of agency over their own narratives.

These satires, after all, boil down to narratives: beneath the commentary, the jokes and ironies are meant to reveal what are essentially black stories. But many of these films fail to understand the central, perhaps only, parameter of a black story: that it be honest and complicated and, at the very least, inclusive of the people it depicts.




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