#WRITERSBLOCK Our Obsession With Pornographic Black Death

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In the early 20th century, when lynching at an all time high in America some enterprising chaps came up with the bright idea of souvenirs. Make no mistake, lynchings were a showstopper event; reported crowds of 15,000. So much so that the local paper would advertise upcoming lynchings to allow for photographers to set up  their cameras. When the lynching was done (and the victim had cooled down as on occasion they’d be set on fire) parts of the victim’s body was torn of and sold as souvenirs. If you weren’t lucky enough to get a body part from the victim you could always pose for a festive photograph and be a part of the moment forever.

For hundreds of years black death has been a form of entertainment and even in these more ‘enlightened’ times, it’s no different. But instead of lynch mobs and postcards, we have viral videos and alt-right memes. As long as black people are dying, there will be someone enjoying it.

The latest extravaganza comes in the form of 19-year-old Kenneka L. Jenkins, who was found dead in a hotel industrial freezer on September 10th. Her mother Teresa Martin felt foul play was involved and blames the police’s reluctance to act quickly in her daughter’s death. Speculation around the events that lead to Kenneka’s death have erupted due to a viral video of the night she died fuelling speculation that she was murdered by her friends. The truth was revealed to have been that she simply got very drunk and wandered into an industrial freezer where she tragically froze to death. Of course this isn’t enough for some and understandably so. The biggest purveyors of black death pornography are the police themselves, so it’s understandable that any conclusions they came to would be viewed with suspicion.

But the issue is with how little respect black death is given. The videos of the night were uploaded showing the kids playing music and having fun, this quickly turned into a conspiracy where Kenneka’s friends were ‘clearly‘ plotting to murder her. But instead of taking this evidence to the police, people began making videos with the ‘evidence‘ for likes and subscribers. And of course this lead to the teens being harassed online, accused of murder and even encouraged to kill themselves.
Once any aspect of their lives (and deaths) finds itself on the internet, it becomes the internets property and no longer and these are no longer the lives of people.

When police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot Philando Castile, Castile’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds liv-streamed her dying boyfriends final moments. The clip quickly went viral as the perfect demonstration of just how unhinged police officers can be and the unreasonable conditions that black people find themselves having to remain calm while faced with a deranged man waving a gun in their face. But the real reason the clip went viral was because it showed a man dying. Raw, unfiltered and up close.

From the early noughties videos like ‘Faces Of Death’ to the Taliban/Al Queda/ISIS decapitation videos tell us a very simple truth: we are obsessed with death. Real death. Slasher movies are a sub-genre of horror movies, without suspense and tension; they exist purely to entertain through violence. And when that wasn’t enough, hyper violent ‘torture porn’ (movies like ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’) upped the ante. But with the ‘dead’ walking around perfectly fine promoting the movie, the illusion wasn’t enough.

And now social media allows us to watch men, women and children die on camera and on repeat. Morbid curiosity runs into the millions. Shame in having to delve into seedy sites or buying DVD’s with similar content is a thing of the past, as you can watch children be murdered in-between cat videos. More than anyone else black people die fantastically. Black people are portrayed as thugs, savages and criminals so their deaths can be framed as justice. Instead of victims of unlawful force; when they die on camera it is like the baddie in a Die Hard movie dying a hyper violent death for all their crimes. But instead of a rap sheet worthy of death (Eric Garner – illegally selling cigarettes) they don’t need a 2 hour film to show all the bad they did. Being black is crime enough and the viewer can project any number of unknown crimes onto them. So when they do die, to the viewer it’s simply their past (blackness) catching up with them.

This scene from A Time To Kill’ perfectly describes the mental gymnastics it takes to see black people as humans:

Take a 17-year-old white girl being followed home and murdered by a 33-year-old man. Outrage. If some crazed civilian took it upon themselves to shoot this 33-year-old man, they’d be hailed as a hero; they certainly wouldn’t be facing a combined total of 35 years; which is what the man who attempted to shoot George Zimmerman was sentenced to. You remember George Zimmerman, the 33 year old man who stalked 17-year-old Trayvon Martin  and when he couldn’t overpower him, shot him twice in the chest. He murdered a child and walked. A person attempted to take Zimmerman’s life and got 35 years. This makes a clear statement about how little society values black lives.

The crux here is Mr. Apperson’s blatant disregard for my life, any life…‘ Zimmerman told a judge with zero irony.

Zimmerman’s defenders state that Trayvon was a thug and clearly a threat. This is despite Zimmerman’s repeated domestic violence arrests, various violent run ins with the law AND Zimmerman being SIXTEEN YEARS OLDER than Trayvon. It’s not about whether Trayvon was wearing a hoody or not. It’s just an excuse to ‘other’ black people.
Whether its drug abusing cheat Maria Sharapova suggesting Serena William’s build meant that she was impossible to beat (nothing to do with her being the greatest athlete ever?), black people being ‘naturally’ fast, having rhythm and whatever other ‘magical’ abilities to undermine hard work and talent; it all aids in dehumanising black people, so any achievements are those of superhumans and black deaths are as tragic as a MIGHTY bull being slaughtered by a ‘skilful’ matador.

No matter how violent the death or whether it’s a child, a mother or someone surrendering and posing no threat; when they’re murdered the excuses are always the same:

He didn’t look like a child

If he just did what the officer said…

Feared for my life

That last one in particular is among the most common and speaks volumes. You can thank black people for everything from advances in gynaecology to acne treatment. However these breakthroughs were made by white scientists exploiting black people with no choice in their horrific experiments. A snapshot into ‘the father of modern gynaecology’ J. Marion Sims gynecological experiments on slaves:

‘The women, afflicted with vesico-vaginal fistulas, a tear between the vagina and the bladder, suffered greatly from the condition and were incontinent, resulting in societal ostracism. Because Sims felt the surgery was, “not painful enough to justify the trouble,” as he said in an 1857 lecture, the operations were done without anaesthesia.’

Couple that with the myth that ‘black people feel less pain’ being practiced in the real world with findings that black people are being withheld pain relief medication in emergency rooms. Yup, this is a thing where  so-called medical professionals genuinely believe black people don’t feel pain.

When a police officer  ‘fears for their life‘, it’s because they believe all of the above. Black people are inherently aggressive, feel no pain and naturally stronger, so the only way to survive an encounter is lethal force.

The trend even continues in cinema. And it even starts with a joke; black people and horror movies. We’re all laughing at the fact that black people have little chance of survival in horror movies, but the reasons behind this aren’t quite as funny. Black characters in horror movies have little character development and their blackness is deemed less relatable to movie audiences which allows them to be killed off.

And films like 12 Years A Slave serve a similar purpose. They’re not quite ‘black’ films in the same way ‘Girls Trip’ and ‘Get Out’ are ‘black’ films. Post-Roots, the slavery film is a completely separate kind of black film. Slavery films are important and Roots is certainly a big part of a traditional black upbringing. And having come out 40 years ago there’s an argument that the important topic of slavery shouldn’t be allowed to fade out of the collective conscience. So remakes, TV shows, documentary’s and movies about slavery are necessary. Fine. The thing is, nothing more tied to the black identity than slavery. And black people are getting a little of sick of it. Slavery isn’t the epitome of black culture, it’s a certainly a big part of it and has an impact till this very day, but the way a lot of these films tell it, black people were enslaved and then started rapping. The end.
And of course slavery films are traumatic. There’s no light-hearted take on slavery. So a growing part of the black cinema goers are abandoning slavery films and this is where pornographic black death comes in.

When telling the story of slavery we can all agree that it should be unflinchingly real and do whatever necessary to depict the horrors of the period. But this has given filmmakers free license to make violence thrilling. This was also seen in famous anti-Semite Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion Of Christ’. This film was about the crucifixion of Christ; but when it came out all anyone could talk about was the level of violence on-screen. One critic called it a ‘snuff film’, another ‘Jesus Chainsaw Massacre’ and Roger Ebert said:

‘The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus. This is the most violent film I have ever seen.’

 

More criticism was levelled at the film for focusing on the violent end than Jesus’ teachings. These were to be addressed in the sequel but despite making over half a billion dollars at the box office, no sequel has been mentioned in 13 years.

And now compare:

If black people aren’t seeing slavery movies, who are they for? The person who enjoys seeing black people gunned down by police officers, or lynched on postcards aren’t the same people who go to see black trauma on the big screen; but the results are the same. Rebecca Wanzo’s discussion of 12 Years A Slave takes issue with it being described as torture porn:

‘The accusation that it is torture porn ignores the fact that pornography is supposed to result in an orgiastic catharsis.’

And this is where a new type of black suffering is useful. ‘Tragedy porn’ 

The people who film themselves feeding the homeless or change their profile pic to a country affected by a tragedy without actually doing anything about it; those are the people these films are for. The ‘orgiastic catharsis’ comes with the empathic high ground. This allows them to be compassionate, #woke and most importantly excuse themselves from any of their ancestors wrongdoing. Which isn’t to say anyone who sees any of these films is doing so for similar purposes; but it’s certainly true while there have been decades of brilliant, impactful black cinema; when it comes to Oscar season the most successful black films are the ones featuring black suffering.

While there were likely many christians who went to see The Passion Of Christ to get a greater understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice; there was also a clear number of people who went to see his back get ripped up.

There’s also the ‘raising awareness’ argument that is completely redundant at this point. School books are literally rewriting history and as much as films are important, education will always have a greater impact on how we perceive history. It’s pretty much how Christopher Columbus was ever hailed a hero, who ‘discovered’ America and not a ‘murderous moron

They’re not ‘raising awareness’ when they share a violent video with their ‘take’ and a link to their YouTube page; or when another film about slavery is used as Oscar bait. It’s all the same story, black trauma is entertainment and because in every aspect of society black people are dehumanised. So maybe we should try to give our attention to programming that doesn’t sensationalise black trauma and when a death is being shared; maybe instead of trying to benefit from it do your bit to ensure it doesn’t happen again.