A scholar by the moniker of Son of Baldwin once stated, “Be very careful with whom you allow to tell your story. Good intention does not equal good witnessing.”
A few months back while visiting an acquaintance, I was forced to suffer a few episodes of the new Ryan Murphy Netflix series, Hollywood. While I’m always happy to see co-executive producer Janet Mock continue to garner success and appreciate learning about the late actor Rock Hudson, that’s the extent of the positives. Being forced to watch gays and people of color fight to prove their self worth to inferior racist caucasians during the 1950s is not what I consider entertainment. I get too much of that living in the South. I was also reminded of the fact that the same battles in Hollywood and society fifty years prior are still prevalent today.
Because of this and many other reasons, I developed the Upkins Media Litmus Test several years back. I always appreciated the idea behind the Bechdel Test which calls attention to misogyny in fiction. My Media Litmus Test is a set of questions I’ll pose before considering a television series, movie, or novel.
Question 1: Is the lead or a primary protagonist a person of color?
Examples: Teen Wolf, Scandal, KIN, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Elementary
Question 2: Is the lead or a primary protagonist an LGBTQ?
Examples: In Between Men, Love Simon, Dirty Computer Emotion Picture, Strut, and Freedom Fighters: The Ray
Question 3: Is the writing exceptional?
Would I as a fellow storyteller be impressed? By exceptional, I mean is it on some Shonda Rhimes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Joss Whedon level of brilliance?
Question 4: Is there eye candy?
If said content features the likes of say Chris Hemsworth, Evan Roderick, Jesse Williams, Harry Shum Jr., or Sean Maher then it is my responsibility to support the projects of my future hubbies. 😉
Question 5: Does it feature a fave?
In my case that’s usually the actress and goddess known as Gina Torres, perfection herself. Her credits alone are a testament to this.
If the content in question cannot provide an affirmative for any one of these simple questions, then I will usually reject it outright.
It’s incredible how much one’s outlook, spirit, and health improves dramatically when they’re not bombarded with nonstop negative subliminal reinforcements that tell them that they are evil and inferior for being who they are. Moreover, when the media I consume celebrates who I am, I feel empowered to do the impossible in my day-to-day. Ultimately, my Media Litmus Test lends credence to the wise words of one W.E.B. Du Bois. To whom you give your money, you give your power.
In the past decade alone there has been a paradigm shift of sorts. Social justice and social media have influenced the airwaves and have allowed us to have long overdue conversations that would have been unheard of two decades prior.
The industry (Hollywood, music, publishing, take your pick) overall continues to find itself in a state of freefall. Most of the notable exceptions, however, are often creators of color, particularly Black creators. Dwayne Johnson and Will Smith are arguably the two highest grossing A-List actors in Hollywood today. ABC can credit Shonda Rhimes for its ratings vice grip on Thursday nights for nearly two decades. Beyonce and Jay-Z have proven themselves to be a force of nature in film, music, and fashion. Independent creators, many of them people of color and LGBTQs, are utilizing the internet to share their content, establish their brands, and provide alternatives to mainstream media.
The powers that be can no longer deny the impact of Black dollars and not for lack of trying.
Unfortunately, not all that glitters is gold, and visibility does not equal progress. In recent years studios have resorted to the classic bait and switch in promoting their projects. There’s been an influx of Black trauma porn and minstrel media masquerading as “woke” cinema. Studios engage in social engineering by generating memes and fluff articles on social media to qualify this anti-Black media to the public. Often they’ll parade a Black actor, director, or producer attached to the project as their minority shield to qualify the racist content.
A few examples:
The Green Book would have us believe that Don Shirley, a gay Black piano prodigy who was fluent in eight languages, needed a racist white man to teach him about true Black culture and how not to be so “uppity”.
Queen & Slim, produced by the same company that released The Green Book, promoted itself as an artistic melanin rich love story but as one review so accurately stated, it had one major theme: if Black people resist systemic oppression, the only thing they’ll ever manage to accomplish are bloody “noble” deaths at best.
Harriet proved to be nothing more than a smear campaign against one of history's greatest freedom fighters. That’s not even taking into account the fact that the film’s villain is a fictional Black slave catcher.
The fact that white critics and audiences are raving over both HBO series Lovecraft Country and Watchmen is enough alone to make them suspect. While both cable series pay lip service to Black history, both shows are inundated with homophobia and dehumanizing Black characters for the white gaze. Lovecraft Country is based on a book written by a white male author that has been deemed by critics as “racial justice entertainment.” The 2016 novel is the reimagining of the work of one of the most virulent and mediocre racists in history. Let’s also not forget that Lovecraft Country and Watchmen aired on the same network that still gives the racist Bill Maher his own platform, cursed us all with Rape of Thrones and almost gave us the series Confederate.
When media normalizes Black trauma and whitewashes and erases our history and legacy it makes systemic racism and anti blackness the norm in real life.
"My basic stance has always been that the role of racist representation and erasure of POC in media has been the role of dehumanization to create the social space for injustice or harm to occur. It's easy to deny human rights when you've instilled the notion they're not people through every form of mass media.
Which is why white people fall into predictable racist behaviors even with groups of people they've "never seen before" - the media has informed them what expected roles POC are supposed to hold and to punish them if they step out of their place."
It’s long past time for the media that is supposed to represent me and mine to do so accurately. If said “Black” media isn’t providing escapism, inspiration and joy with its artistry, that will be a hard pass. I know my value. There’s not a calculator, super computer or Motherbox to qualify it.
In short, it’s time to change the narrative….on and off screen.