“I wish I could just say, ‘Well, it’s fantasy’ and move on. But I can’t.” Elisa Sjunneson-Henry wrote these words in a 2018 essay for Tor.com about her struggle as someone living with disabilities with science fiction media portraying disabled people only with non-disabled partners . For Sjunneson-Henry and other disabled viewers, these performances are like those in the Oscar-winning film the shape of the water, meant being forced to see their disabilities in a lesser light compared to non-disabled peers. Too often, as in me before you and full metal jacketthese characters would end up injured or dead and not be able to enjoy a happy ending.
Although disability and race are very different, I feel the same way when I watch other movies, TV shows, or plays where a black person (if not multiple black people) dies. I wish I could say, “It’s just fiction” and move on. But I can not.
When Poussey, a black lesbian character in Netflix Orange is the new blackHe was killed by a correctional officer in prison in Season 4, I had to grieve. My heart hurt and I cried for three days, even for a character that didn’t exist. At the same time, I thought that Poussey’s death on screen would be a teaching tool for people to recognize the sadness we feel for black people who die in real life and hopefully combat systematic killings like hers.
I was wrong. Black people are still being killed gratuitously in the entertainment media. It’s almost a crude reflection of what continues to happen in real life – Philando Castile was murdered by police on July 6, 2016, less than a month after Poussey’s death OINTB.
As a black consumer, I can’t be the only one who gets tired of repeatedly watching black people die in movies and on television. In fact, I see this again and again with content that doesn’t focus on police brutality, prison or slavery. Especially this summer like sci-fi and fantasy movies and shows Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Umbrella Academy, stranger thingsand The Sandman All featured scenes in which several black people are the first or among the first characters to be killed.
To make matters worse, while black people are more likely to die on screen, they are the racial demographic least likely to be portrayed successfully navigating mental health and suicidal thoughts.
Research shows that following increased media coverage of blacks dying from police brutality, blacks are reporting declining mental health. Suicide rates among black youth are rising, and black activists have even died by suicide as awareness of violence and death against black people has increased.
“As a black consumer, I can’t be the only one who gets tired of repeatedly watching black people die in movies and on television.”
For his 2019 master’s thesis at the University of Southern Mississippi, criminal justice researcher Blake Edwards examined how film and television depictions of black people committing crimes affect the general public’s perception of black people, particularly when viewers are exposed to those images over and over again. Edwards showed that blacks are more likely to be portrayed as people living in worse living conditions, or as antagonists of typically white protagonists. Many shows and films have misinterpreted vicious stereotypes (like get strong and Threat II society) as a liberation for blacks. As a result of these transgressions, viewers were more likely to see Black people as responsible for their own oppression.
Ultimately, there is a recognizable crisis at play here. So why isn’t there more research on how black mental health correlates with entertainment media, and what can we do to address the negative effects?
It might be easy to just say, “It’s just fiction, go ahead.” But fiction works to capture the human experience — and it can have lasting effects depending on how it does so. The Birth of a Nation, the infamous 1915 film endorsed by white Southern supremacists, was fiction and still encouraged racist rhetoric and tropes that are still alive and well. hundred years later Orange is the new black, also a work of fiction, did not erase the reality of black people dying undeservedly. “It’s just fiction, go on” is a way of allowing harm to continue without consequences—negating the role media and pop culture can play in inculcating better values in society.
Many universities and colleges also simply ignore this type of research and refrain from giving it strong support. When scholars are offered the opportunity to study how the on-screen depiction of Black death affects Black mental health, it is often relegated to niche areas such as “Black Studies” or “Movie Studies.”
While mental health is taken seriously as a part of public health, support from public health foundations such as the National Institute on Minority Health, Mental Health America, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the American Foundation for Suicide remains lacking prevention. These parties have previously supported specific studies on news media and entertainment media; Yet they have chosen not to fund new studies examining the impact of media on black mental health and what types of solutions we should implement.
And, of course, the lack of institutional support is compounded by an apathy from the general public — particularly white viewers, who may not experience the same emotional dysregulation of seeing black characters die on screen as black viewers would. White viewers may argue that white people die on screen too, and they are right. But it’s also true that white characters are more likely to live happily ever after, and the ending and black characters don’t.
It’s not that the black community isn’t already expressing their desire for better movies and shows. Black consumers have openly expressed their desire for more happiness, so we’re not stuck in one type of story; above all, a story of violence that is repeated to the point of fetishizing the black pain of death.
“The same fatigue that plagues black viewers can also impact the mental and emotional health of black creators.”
Although Hollywood has expressed a desire to bring more Black creators into the writing space to more authentically capture the Black experience, simply hiring Black writers to write Black Death is no solution. The same fatigue that plagues black viewers can also impact the mental and emotional health of black creators.
Antoinette Nwandu confronts and subverts this issue in her latest play, pass: a modern retelling of Waiting for Godot In it, two black men, Moses and Kitch, wait by a lamppost to leave behind (or “pass over”) their hardships in their neighborhood. Moses and Kitch are never allowed to leave after Moses is murdered by a white character named Mister; the same white actor who plays the cop who harasses her in the play, Ossifer.
Nwandu’s original ending ends in a black death – something she mourns as a writer herself. However, the ending undermines the death at the hands of a cop that befalls so many black characters in entertainment media. Finally, there is a necessary merit in exploring Black Pain and in Black Storytellers, who use art to reveal how deaths affect us in our community.
And since then, Nwandu has rewritten pass Featuring three different endings – one involving a death and the other two a happy ending where no one dies – to encourage healing and encourage playmakers to choose the ending their community needs most. This kind of creativity not only pushes the boundaries of cultural and entertainment media to something more daring; It also offers space and flexibility to meet audiences where they are.
The boldest entertainment is one that doesn’t rely on damage-dealing tropes. As consumers, we cannot look away at how exposure to this harm is affecting us and our identity. Even if it’s fiction. The solution is not to turn off our screens; It aims to advocate for wholesome creations of films, shows and plays that are better seen with more black people safe and alive.