Note: This story originally ran in July 2019, months after the Netflix series When They See Us sparked conversations about racial justice and disparities in America's criminal justice system. One year after the series' release, and in the wake of ongoing civil unrest around the country, TV Guide is re-publishing this story and others like it to help foster greater understanding and awareness on these pressing issues.
When They See Us, Ava DuVernay‘s stunning Netflix series showered with Emmy nominations, presents a paradox for some African American viewers. On the one hand, the drama showed some 23 million people around the world how in 1989, New York City police and prosecutors coerced five black and Latino teenagers into confessing to the gruesome rape of a white woman only for their convictions to be overturned in 2002 when the real perpetrator came forward. It was beautifully rendered, and did the work of educating people who may not understand tensions between African Americans and the police and criminal justice system. Ironically though, many black people couldn't bring themselves to watch it.
In think pieces and on Twitter, voices of a resistance-within-a-resistance defended the right to skip it. Some people are not emotionally ready to watch When They See Us and that's OK, declared Jazmine Denise at Madame Noire. Others called it triggering, or were too freaked out by the prospect that “It could have been me” to watch until the end. With 16 nominations, When They See Us clearly proved successful. It also became the gold standard of modern TV works confronting police brutality and the criminal justice system that are too upsetting for the people they're intended to benefit to even watch.
In 2017 there was Time: The Kalief Browder Story, the Jay-Z-produced series about the teenager who committed suicide after being placed in Rikers Island following a false accusation of stealing a backpack. Jay-Z also got Paramount to air the six-episode Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, which chronicled how Martin's tragic death sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Then there was HBO's doc Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, about the black woman who mysteriously died in a Texas jail after a routine traffic stop. There's an HBO documentary about Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, the black man who died in police custody; one about the Jordan Davis a black teen shot by a white man for playing his music too loud; and, in June 2019, Showtime aired 16 Shots, a documentary chronicling how a white Chicago officer got an unprecedented guilty verdict following the shooting of Laquan McDonald.
Besides telling heartbreaking stories of high-profile cases, these stories share in common a sense of activist urgency as they beam a pressing issue for black Americans into TV screens nationwide. Yet an increasingly vocal contingent of black viewers are giving all these important programs a hard pass, whether to protect their mental health, because the material recalls painful personal memories, or as a way of quietly protesting “black suffering porn.”
Marcus Anthony Hunter, chair of the Department of African American Studies at UCLA, said people are fatigued. “I don't think people are saying they can't watch When They See Us because of When They See Us; they're saying they can't watch because of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile.” Cell phone video and social media have empowered citizens with new tools for exposing police brutality, but the downside of those viral videos of black people being arrested for doing nothing or in danger of being killed by police can trigger a gamut of emotions from anger to hopelessness to terror. TV shows can reinforce feelings of paranoia, danger, or hopelessness. “It's a cumulative effect that requires black people to revisit trauma and pain,” Hunter said. To him, these stories fit in a larger context of a limited range for black narratives. “It's either your trauma or your stereotype. Which do you choose?” Some abstainers wrestle with feelings of guilt for not fulfilling a perceived obligation, or pressure from their social media feeds.
“I do not find police narratives to be entertaining,” said Free Egunfemi, a historian and activist based in Richmond, Va. “They are traumatic. They are toxic and scary.” She said she doesn't watch any programs that depict violent conflict — no Game of Thrones, no Dexter — and said she finds the idea of watching black trauma for entertainment problematic. For people who create these works though, confronting painful images is exactly the point. “It should be difficult to watch,” said Rick Rowley, who directed Showtime's 16 Shots. Parts of it are brutal; it contains close-up shots of McDonald's body and replays the footage of him being shot. But it also shows how informed citizens forced the Chicago police to release suppressed footage and ultimately led to the officer's conviction and the removal of State's Attorney Anita Alvarez. Rowley said he took care not to use graphic images lightly, but for him, they serve an important function. “I hope the film shows how these acts of violence are not a crime of an individual person. This is a societal sickness. I hope people will stop and not turn the page, that they will understand the system and context which makes black lives disappear.”
Of course, as a white man, Rowley doesn't have to live with the firsthand anxiety black viewers might while watching this type of material. Still, years of covering violent conflicts in Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan have given him a unique perspective on filming traumatic material. He still has nightmares after witnessing a 5-year-old Palestinian girl's dying moments after she'd been shot at by tanks. Feeling torn about filming as he rode in an ambulance with the girl's father, he watched the color drain from her face inside a hospital and decided to stop shooting as doctors tried to save her life. “I felt like I was intruding,” said Rowley. But the doctor told him to keep filming; the world needed to see what was happening, and if he stopped filming, he should leave — not just the room, but the country. Rowley realized then that only cameras have the power to yank people out of their comfort zones and make them aware of the suffering experienced by people who need compassion. 16 Shots and shows like it eliminate excuses for not knowing about the injustices all around us. “It's our responsibility as citizens to not look away.”
But whose responsibility is it to look? Conflicted viewers like Nyaze Vincent, an LA-based digital producer who hosts the podcast Woke With Kids with wife Melissa, wonder if they're even the intended audience in the first place. “Black people, even privileged black people, are aware that [police brutality] exists and they have to deal with racism,” he said. “So why do I need my emotions manipulated to get me in alignment with something I'm already in agreement with? That leads me to think with some of it, ‘OK, this must be for allies.'” He delayed watching When They See Us so he could process his feelings about it separate from the social media din, but he plans to watch it. He makes sure his two sons see documentaries like 16 Shots too, with the appropriate amount of nurturing. “It's mandatory for the kids to watch, because my kids are extremely privileged. Very little occurs to them in the bubble I've created and I need shock and awe to make them realize what they may experience. For me, I don't need reminders.”
While glad they exist, the black viewers who opt out of these traumatic stories do have some optimism. Viewers like Egunfemi, whose Untold RVA project brings untold stories about black history to life, see opportunities to balance sad stories with uplifting ones. “I realize people associate [antebellum-era black narratives] with the traumas of enslavement but the truth is, that's a very flat, un-nuanced perception. They enjoyed spring, summer, ripe peaches, going to the river, eating popcorn, smiling babies, etc, just like we do,” said Egunfemi.
What's the antidote to suffering porn? Apart from the obvious — no more killings like George Floyd's in the first place — television shows can do more to depict the countless other elements of black life besides pain. In 2020, shows like Hollywood, which makes the people of color the winners, the sillyBlack Monday the provocative #blackAF, and Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker help paint the bigger picture Egunfemi and black viewers like her want to see.
Either way, as long as there's injustice, storytellers will rush in to dramatize it or document it, and those storytellers are not in the business of making people feel good. Said Rick Rowley, “We're in the middle of a national reckoning around race and justice. The work of fixing it falls on all of us. We made [16 Shots] thinking everyone needed to see it.”
When They See Us, #blackAF and Self Made are streaming on Netflix; 16 Shots and Black Monday are on Showtime.