Criticism / McKinley E. Melton
:: “Let’s Make a Movie”: Visualizing Blackness Beyond Trauma Through the Lens of Film and Poetry ::
Black history is full of trauma. Moreover, when examined in relation to the contemporary moment, the timeline of that trauma-filled history defies a narrative of unabated progress. Indeed, one of the deep frustrations of engaging thoughtfully with the reality of the twenty-first century is the feeling that, regardless of how many transitions our world has undergone, Black pain remains consistent. In the effort to use artistic production to give voice to this frustration, Black artists face the challenge of recognizing and representing trauma, in both the past and present, without allowing it to become the defining feature of Blackness. Recognizing pain as a part of the story, which cannot be allowed to represent the totality of Black identity, is particularly important for those artists who seek to articulate an understanding of Blackness through visual means, for whom image and imagery are central to the creative effort.
Films and film-making play a pivotal role in creating images of Blackness, particularly with respect to trauma. In the current moment, when Black trauma is projected across screens of all sizes through viral videos, social media, and ceaseless cable news, there is a powerful sense of immediacy concerning the conditions facing Black bodies. However, it’s vital to recognize that film is but the latest iteration in the evolution of Black image-making. Jacqueline N. Stewart reminds us in her analysis of “the emergence of cinema” that “its early methods of representing Blackness both entered into and reflected a long, complex tradition of Black ‘image’ making in visual and nonvisual media, a tradition that had significant and often quite damaging personal and political ramifications for African American individuals and communities.” [i] This has certainly persisted as Black film has evolved over the course of the past century. Consequently, as Black artists turn to film, both as creatives and critics, to examine how it shapes understandings of Blackness in relation to hurt and pain, they engage not only the history of Black trauma, but also the history of Black image-making. Black artists, in their ongoing effort to produce images of Blackness with greater dimension, must be understood as entering into longstanding and ongoing critical discourses around Black visuality.
In this discussion, I consider the work of three such artists, placing their creative efforts in conversation with scholars who are similarly interested in the visualization of Blackness. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay critically reflects on popularized representations of Blackness and trauma while endeavoring to produce counter-narratives through gripping visual texts. Throughout her body of work, but specifically in her 2019 Netflix series, When They See Us, DuVernay is particularly interested in the consequential relationship between popularized images of Blackness and the lived experience of her films’ subjects. In dialogue with DuVernay, I examine the work of contemporary poets Gabriel Ramirez and Danez Smith, focusing on poems wherein the artists employ film as a metaphor for their commentary on prevalent Black images.
As poets whose filmed performances represent visual forms of artistic expression as well, Ramirez and Smith contribute to a critical understanding of how Blackness becomes visualized through images produced in multiple media, each of which operates in distinction from, and in dialogue with, one another. These artists collectively utilize film, both as metaphor and as medium, to pose powerful questions about the need for Black art to engage trauma with respect to Black history and historical context as well as to re-frame representations of Blackness for their viewers, thereby illuminating not just the trauma of Black life but the fullness of the lives that trauma interrupts.
When They See Us official trailer
When Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us was released on Netflix in May 2019, the response from the viewing public was swift and varied. Detailing the events that led to the wrongful arrest of five teenagers—Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Raymond Santana, Jr.—for rape in 1989 and following their lives from incarceration to exoneration, the series immediately catalyzed a robust discourse of reviews, responses, and critically-minded “think pieces.” Critics, scholars, and general viewers found themselves re-examining the case, exploring the biographies of the re-monikered “Exonerated Five,” discussing the performances of the young actors who took on these roles, and consistently drawing parallels to the contemporary moment. The conversation around the film series only grew as Netflix announced that it had been the most watched program on its platform each day in the weeks after its release and that it had been viewed by more than 23 million accounts worldwide within its first month. [ii] In the midst of that conversation, a central concern recurrently rose to the forefront: given the painfully traumatic nature of the series’ storyline and its emotional resonance with ongoing debates about the criminal justice system and the persistent criminalization of Black youth, much of the conversation centered on its “watchability.” Viewers reflected on the emotional work required of them to complete all four episodes, and potential viewers interrogated whether they were fully prepared to sit through the challenging scenes from the discomfort of their living rooms.
Many within this debate felt that the traumatic nature of the viewing experience was critical to the effectiveness of DuVernay’s film. Recognizing that DuVernay herself had arranged for crisis counselors to be on set for the cast and crew during filming, the difficulty of the material was fully acknowledged. [iii] Many insisted that the willingness to embrace that difficulty was necessary, as a show of support not only for the “Exonerated Five,” but also for the film itself and, by extension, for future efforts to tell the stories of the traumatized in order to facilitate healing and to prevent these circumstances from recurring. Ida Harris argues,
[DuVernay’s] work deserves our eyes, collective contemplation, and action … As black people, we must be aware of the aggressive criminalization of black and brown people—which lends a hand to mass incarceration. We must know these stories and be familiar with the entities who benefit from our demise. [iv]
Similarly, Zenobia Jeffries Warfield argues that the emotional heft of the film bears significant historical parallels underlying its necessity. After admitting that she “didn’t make it to the end of part one before [her] chest hurt so badly from anxiety and rage that only an overwhelming wail from deep within brought [her] relief,” she recognized that her pain was communal:
In some Black spaces it may be about affirming our humanity—our experiences, being seen, being heard, being believed, and making the world hear firsthand these stories of hellishness and heartbreak. I would equate the pain of watching the series to seeing the televised images of Black people—including children—being hosed, beaten, and jailed during the civil rights era. [v]
The parallels drawn here are significant, not only for the ways that these writers link historical and contemporary trauma, but also for how they center film—both its making and its viewing—as a critical form of resistance to that trauma and the acts that incite it. Given that one of DuVernay’s previous films, Selma, explored the international impact of televised scenes of violence in the civil rights era, namely the live broadcasting of “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, it would be reasonable to consider how DuVernay engages in similar themes with When They See Us.
While recognizing DuVernay’s intent in producing such a powerful film series, others asserted that the episodes demanded too much of the audience and suggested that potential viewers should absolutely feel free to avoid the series for the sake of their own mental health and as a deliberate act of self-care. KC Ifeanyi, for example, recognized that “public displays of black trauma were an integral catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement” and acknowledged the importance of “televised accounts and portraits of black bodies being hosed and torn by dogs” as well as the “heartbreaking decision to have an open-casket funeral” for Emmett Till. [vi] Yet, Ifeanyi still argued for the need to “opt out” of the viewing and the demand to revisit these boys’ trauma through film. Essays like CNN contributor Doug Criss’s “I’m a Black man with a teenage son. I can’t bring myself to watch When They See Us” and Essence magazine senior entertainment editor Joi-Marie McKenzie’s “I was 7 Months Pregnant Creating a Black Boy While Watching When They See Us” brought into stark relief the emotional tax being drawn from Black parents in particular. These writers saw in their own children the potential fates of the young men whose confessions to a crime that they did not commit were so brutally and strategically coerced in a coordinated effort between police and prosecutors in the series’ first episode. Consistently, the objections raised to the viewing experience were not only about the pain of re-living these moments from 1989, but also about recognizing the very real possibility that such events could repeat today.
Novelist Eisa Nefertari Ulen similarly addressed the pain exacted from parents, doing so with a consciously historical lens that extended even farther than the late 1980s. Ulen writes, “I think about my ancestors, about the trauma of parenting enslaved children. How can my fear compare to the realities my foremothers faced? Children dragged from their love and into pure white terror. Why do I feel so suddenly unable to cope, when they survived far worse?” [vii] Challenging her sense of guilt over an apparent inability to muster the fortitude of her ancestors, Ulen recognizes that her pain is compounded by the recognition that “things have not changed so much after all … this is history. This is now. This is intergenerational trauma.” [viii] Ulen writes, “I am suffering witness trauma. Every time I see a video of police violence, a surveillance tape, a dash cam recording, I am experiencing a kind of psychological torture.” [ix] In making this declaration, Ulen also argues,
The truth in this series shouldn’t be my trauma to bear … It is time for white women and white men and white children to have this experience, to know this story, to confront this reality. White law students, age-old prosecutors and police officers cannot claim to be professionals if they do not witness these truths. Five hundred years is long enough. Black mothers have screamed into the night long enough. It is time for white people to see them—the killers who live in their families—and confront the evil they have done. [x]
In this powerful declaration, Ulen echoes a sentiment that is shared by multiple writers, such as David Dennis, Jr., who wrote “Dear White People: Make Your White Friends Watch When They See Us” for News One. Dennis suggests that the triggering nature of the series was a vital element of the viewing process and that the question up for debate should not be whether the series is “watchable,” but who should be watching, in order for the visualization of Black trauma to be presented to greatest effect.
The question of audience and historical-contemporary continuity function as the two central themes in this debate about the “watchability” of Black trauma, as engendered by discussions of DuVernay’s work. While today’s critics take on these questions through social media and public scholarship, these are not new questions with respect to the production of Black art. They have been addressed repeatedly by scholars who examine the place of trauma in representations of Black life through Black art. Saidiya Hartman’s seminal work, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, explores precisely these questions while referencing the pain of enslaved people that similarly inspired Ulen’s response and thoughtful engagement with the trauma of her ancestors. Analyzing the representation of “scenes of subjection” through nineteenth-century literature, theater, and visual arts, Hartman explicitly addresses the question of audience. She writes,
What interests me are the ways we are called upon to participate in such scenes. Are we witnesses who confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of the dominant accounts? Or are we voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance? What does the exposure of the violated body yield? Proof of black sentience or the inhumanity of the ‘peculiar institution’? Or does the pain of the other merely provide us with the opportunity for self-reflection? At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator. [xi]
DuVernay, in her meticulous attention to the details of the lives of these young men and the ripple effect of these traumatic events on their families, impels her audience to interrogate similar questions of themselves. DuVernay challenges her viewers to consider their own role as spectator and witness in the twenty-first century and to clarify the obligations and indictments that come with the roles.
Building upon and acknowledging her debt to Hartman’s work, Jasmine Nichole Cobb moves beyond the trauma of enslavement to consider how Blacks worked to fashion their public image in the face of what she describes as the “peculiarly ‘ocular’ institution” of chattel slavery. Cobb convincingly argues that the institution “utilized an unstable visual logic of race to enslave persons of African descent and to protect Whites from the threat of the gaze,” and she argues for an understanding of “slavery’s visual culture as an impediment to recognizing freedom” and for a critical engagement with “Black visuality as shaped by and resistant to slavery’s visual culture.” [xii] Cobb analyzes how nineteenth-century media, in support of slavery, defined Blackness and enslavement interchangeably to create an immediate association in the minds of white viewers. The work of slaveholders, then, was to maintain the “logical” link between Blackness and enslavement in order to preserve slavery, whose “daily execution thrived in a racio-visual economy that determined ways of seeing and ways of being seen according to racial difference.” [xiii] Conversely, Black activists and anti-slavery advocates of the time worked to refashion public images of Blacks as something other than enslaved in order to reshape public understanding of freedom as a state of being attainable by Black bodies in the nineteenth century.
This essentializing representation of Blackness as synonymous with a particular state of being is precisely what DuVernay challenges in the twenty-first-century context, forcing her own audience to confront the ways that criminality is immediately associated with Blackness. This is evident in the very title of the series, When They See Us, which was notably changed from “The Central Park Five.” As DuVernay explained in the initial announcement, the title change “embraces the humanity of the men and not their politicized moniker.” [xiv] Actress Niecy Nash, who was nominated for an Emmy award for playing Deloris Wise, Korey’s mother, explains the significance of the name while once again echoing the historical import of the work being done by this film:
It is still a story that could have hit the newspapers yesterday. It is telling of America today and yesterday, hence the title When They See Us. I loved that we moved away from calling this the Central Park Five because that was the moniker the media gave these boys—they were called a wolf pack when they didn’t even know each other. What do they see when they see us? They see monsters, a villain. Someone of ill repute, someone nefarious who doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt. [xv]
Duvernay explores the immediate association of young Black men with criminality through the interrogation scenes in episode one of the series, as the audience watches the violation of these boys’ innocence through a refusal to see it, all as a precursor to the complete loss of that innocence in the episodes that follow. Moreover, though the police station scenes of the first episode are jarring, it is in the subsequent episodes that DuVernay explores the process by which these young men are vilified in the media through the sensationalized coverage to which Nash refers. In highlighting this process, DuVernay intentionally uses her film to provide counter-images of these young men and to detail how those dominant images were created and reinforced in the first place.
In scenes where DuVernay explores the process of criminalizing these specific boys, she addresses a second aspect of Cobb’s analysis of how Blackness was so narrowly (and similarly) defined in the nineteenth century. Through an examination of “a diverse array of print ephemera, such as auction advertisements, runaway advertisements, and pickup notices,” Cobb argues that,
White viewership became essential to the institutionalization of slavery’s visual culture, as print media undergirded the slave economy. Slaving media, then, normalized Whiteness as a disembodied viewing position by excluding slavers, auctioneers, purchasers, owners, and catchers from the page. Instead, these items announced the arrival of new chattel for sale or called on the White viewing public to assist in the reclamation of enslaved property … A still-burgeoning U.S. media industry became central to the buying and selling of chattel persons with advertisements that invited free White viewers, specifically, to visit auction sites and view scantily clad Black bodies for display and for purchase. [xvi]
DuVernay revisits this in her film series, highlighting the news coverage and the images that bombarded media consumers in the midst of the 1989 “Central Park Jogger” case. DuVernay focuses on newspaper headlines describing the teenagers as “Wildin’” in the park and Donald Trump’s full-page advertisement calling for the return of the death penalty, among other media coverage. In one particularly powerful scene, Yusef Salaam’s mother, as played by Aunjanue Ellis, is seen viewing the coverage on her own television screen, to which she incredulously responds, “they wanna kill my son.” DuVernay highlights how these visual texts incited the viewing public toward universal condemnation while inviting them to participate in the campaign for punishing these young men for their supposed crimes. These scenes echo Cobb’s analysis of runaway advertisements that invited their viewing public to participate in the dispensation of “justice” to fugitive slaves.
While DuVernay depicts this process within the series, she also utilizes her artistic authority to challenge the “disembodied viewing position” of Whites that had characterized earlier depictions of Blackness. As Cobb argues, the nineteenth-century media that sustained slavery “functioned as perceptual documents, as materials that taught Whites how to see Blackness, but also encouraged Whites to believe that Blackness was a thing to see, and that White subjectivity functioned as a domain for looking,” successfully accomplishing this “by focusing attention on Black bodies and away from White bodies, especially away from Whites who were actively involved in the process of enslaving others.” [xviii] In When They See Us, DuVernay deliberately holds white figures accountable for the role that they played in the conviction and incarceration of these five young men. From the moments of the initial arrest through the courtroom scenes, DuVernay is unsparing in her presentation of the active choices and willful collusion that drove police and prosecutors, namely Felicity Huffman’s Linda Fairstein and Vera Farmiga’s Elizabeth Lederer, in their pursuit of conviction. In so doing, DuVernay actively avoids absenting Whites from the narrative of “The Exonerated Five,” whereas their removal from nineteenth-century media depictions of slavery had absolved them from responsibility for the preservation of that institution.
While DuVernay’s engagement with history and historical context is absolutely key to the successful project of this film series, the filmmaker’s purposeful consideration of the question of audience also drove the critical and popular response to her work. As a professional filmmaker utilizing the global platform of Netflix, DuVernay no doubt desired the widest possible audience. Yet, she intentionally de-centers and thereby disempowers the white gaze. Rather than allowing the white gaze to determine how the audience sees its main characters, DuVernay employs important moments where her characters’ humanity is explored within the lens of their own community, opening the series in the home-space, centering family interactions even in the midst of imprisonment through carefully crafted visitation scenes and phone calls, and exploring each man’s effort to reclaim his identity in the period between his release and his formal exoneration. While the lens through which white figures see these boys plays a tremendous role in the narrative, the film nevertheless positions whiteness as the “they” of the series’ title, whereas Black families, communities, churches, and even cellmates regularly constitute the “us” that is constructed and maintained through the episodes.
DuVernay understands, fully, that an audience’s ability to visualize—to create and receive—images of Blackness bears powerful consequences for the treatment of Black people within the world. The relationship between perception and consequential reality is highlighted throughout the trial and convictions of the five young men in When They See Us, and is thoughtfully illuminated in her exploration of the connection between popular images of Black criminality and incarceration rates in her 2016 Netflix documentary 13th. Moreover, she addresses this phenomenon, wherein the public supports a reality that confirms its visualized beliefs, and examines its relationship to film, in a published conversation with cinematographer Bradford Young. She explains,
The image is intimate to me. We use the term our mind’s eye for a reason. The images that we consume, and that we take in, can nourish us, and they can malnourish us. They become a part of our DNA in some way. They become a part of our mind, our memory.… This idea of the image is so much more dense than even using it in a film context. It’s an intimacy inside your own memory, inside your own mind. We see the world and each other in pictures. That’s why I think film is so emotional. It’s re-creating what’s already embedded in our internal process. It’s an artificial rendering of what’s already going on inside. [xix]
Though this conversation was published in 2016 following the release of Selma, on which she and Young collaborated prior to When They See Us, DuVernay’s commitment to the empowering prospect of the image clearly persists within her work on When They See Us, which continues to use the medium of film to challenge what her audiences think they know, and think they see, by charging them to open their “mind’s eye” and see the world anew.
DuVernay, as a filmmaker, is certainly not alone in a tradition of Black artists who seek to engage with the “mind’s eye” as the space in which images are constructed, doing so in a way that recognizes the power of film even while pursuing other mediums of artistic expression. Images of Black criminality continue to shape popular perceptions of Black men and women, which in turn contribute to the proliferation of incidents—often captured on camera—where Black citizens are subjected to life-threatening and life-claiming interactions with the police and their fellow citizens. Social media, in particular, has usefully captured a growing frustration with these incidents, alongside persistently inequitable incarceration rates and policy-backed conditions of hyper-surveillance made manifest in such practices as stop-and-frisk and such phenomena as the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Black artists, then, subsequently use social media and its myriad platforms as a means of articulating their response to the conditions that elicit their artistic examination. In the midst of these responses, contemporary poets, particularly those who embrace traditions of oral performance and thereby make their literary work both visible and visual, have gained particular prominence.
One such young poet is Gabriel Ramirez, who identifies as a “Queer Afro-Latinx poet, activist, and teaching artist.” [xx] Ramirez honed his skills as a poet and a performer in poetry slams as a young adult, being the 2012 Knicks Poetry Slam Champion, competing as a member of the 2012 Urban Word NYC slam team, ranking 2nd in the NYC Youth Slam, and winning the 2013 National Poetry Youth Slam Championship in Boston. Ramirez has performed in multiple venues in New York, including Lincoln Center and the Apollo Theatre, and is an in-demand guest at colleges and universities around the nation. [xxi] In addition to published work in several anthologies and online platforms, Ramirez has experienced a tremendous increase in popularity due to videos of his performances, often published in such venues as YouTube, Buzzfeed, and Upworthy. One poem, “Black Boy Auditions for His Own Funeral,” surpassed 100,000 views within three months of being uploaded in July 2019. This poem addresses some of the very same themes as DuVernay with respect to audience, historical continuity, and the visualization of Black trauma through film:
Gabriel Ramirez’s “Black Boy Auditions for His Own Funeral”
Framing his performance as an audition for a role that is more destined than desired, Ramirez immediately draws the audience in, driving them to question their participation in this performance in similar ways to Hartman’s insistence on interrogating the blurred lines between witness and spectator to history’s “scenes of subjection.” Following the poem’s opening 20 seconds of deliberate silence, wherein Ramirez’s closed eyes and crossed arms perform the pose of a dead body in its casket, he looks at the audience with wide-eyed enthusiasm, asking, “How was that?” Ramirez mimics the eagerness of a young child seeking approval for his performance, thereby conjuring a sense of boyhood innocence that is similarly accomplished by DuVernay’s choice to open When They See Us with scenes of the five young men talking with family and flirting with girls, presenting a youthful naivete of the fates that will soon befall them. Moreover, posing the question invites the audience to sanction his fitness “for his own funeral,” and thereby disallows the viewer any distance from the scene unfolding in front of them. Echoing both Hartman’s and Cobb’s analyses of a historical desire to distinguish viewers of Black trauma from participants in the incitement of that trauma, Ramirez enacts a performance wherein his audience must take on the role of casting directors. He reminds those watching that their approval—explicit or implicit through their lack of objection—is the necessary first step that allows him to embody the role for which he is auditioning.
The audience’s opportunities to challenge his fitness for the role continue throughout the poem, as Ramirez asks, “Do I look the part yet?” and seeks to convince them that “you can put as many holes in me as you want / I can dance despite the bullets.” Each time the audience neglects to dismiss him from this “casting call,” the level of complicity and participation in this process grows. By the poem’s conclusion, the audience is no longer simply casting the project but has taken on greater agency through Ramirez’s use of direct address and subtle direction. At points, the audience members become producers—as indicated by Ramirez’s question about the subject of the film’s sequel—and potentially directors. Ramirez’s repeated direction to “Roll the Credits,” followed by the closing lines, “Let my death / be your last take. / And in this final shot, / when you burying me, / make sure you get my good side,” ultimately grants final authority for the audience to yell “cut.” Ramirez, however, allows ample opportunity for the audience to step outside of these roles to which they’re being assigned. They have the opportunities to deny the casting, reject the sequel, refuse to applaud, and to actively “walk out the theater” before waiting for the credits to roll. Though the poem is gripping, it holds no one captive, and the challenge to the audience to act on their ability to effect change is powerfully posed, yet subtly drawn, throughout the performance.
In addition to Ramirez’s interaction with the audience throughout the poem, he also carefully outlines the role of the “they” who are necessary to complete this metaphorical film. Like DuVernay, Ramirez does not shy away from detailing how he has been prepared for this role by those in power, who see the casket as the inevitable conclusion to his Black boyhood. Ramirez begins the indictment by declaring, “Time of death: when white America opened my auction-block mouth / poured ‘nigger’ down my throat and it became the only language I knew. / Poison so thick you could call it an accent,” thereby invoking the historical context for his contemporary reality and further clarifying the continuity between the circumstances outlined by this poem and the analysis of Hartman and Cobb. Highlighting the “auction-block” and addressing how “a ruined Black boy … be what prisons fill their wallets with,” Ramirez then directly addresses the cop who “told me to get on the ground / Told me to say my lines / with his gun / in my mouth” and then violated the sacredness of his “sometimes church body” with a hail of bullets that ended his life. While the murder leaves Ramirez still trying to prove that he looks the part and is therefore deserving of the role, it is apparently with great ease that the cop (one of many) “made it to the big screen / with their hands too full / of fund-raised retirement money / to carry any kind of accountability.” Ramirez indicts not only the police officer, but also the greater public who funded the officer’s retirement and refused to hold them accountable for the crime of taking the Black boy’s life. The officer is elevated to celebrity status, occupying the privileged space of the “big screen” in full view of an audience that not only accepts the officer’s actions, but approves of them. Meanwhile, Ramirez notes “all the names of the taken from us too soon” scroll on the screen, “ascending into some rushed and forgotten heaven.”
In the midst of a narrative of police brutality—facilitated at turns by public approbation, antipathy, and apathy—Ramirez carefully constructs an emotionally resonant sense of family and community throughout the poem. From the opening lines, wherein he asks, “did my silence break the small mother in your chest?,” to the portraits drawn of his mother “at the hospital / trying to squeeze the rhythm back into my chest” and later “in the courtroom / wailing her way into a settlement of / ‘I was only doing my job’ / and a check to pacify her raging blood,” Ramirez evokes the very same theme of violated motherhood—and, indeed, parenthood—that we see in DuVernay’s film and in the response of parents who were so affected by its visualization of Black trauma. Ramirez moves beyond the description of the mothers’ grief to insist that the audience recognize the transformation of the officer’s bullets into “these seeds police planted to make me a field of blooming things / like activist and protest and hashtags” and that they refuse to allow a settlement check to be the only comfort for mothers in mourning. Rather, Ramirez directs the audience to “take what flowers grow from me. / Make a bouquet for my mother. / For all mothers / who lose children / and are left with shovels / to bury / what they thought would be / the rest of their lives.” This visual, completed by Ramirez’s performed act of shoveling dirt, creates a possibility for mothers to be comforted by more than payments resentfully distributed by the state. Rather, communally collected flowers, reaped from the blooming things created in the wake of their children’s deaths, suggest the possibility of symbols of new life in the aftermath of trauma. Ironically, however, the plucking of those things for the creation of bouquets suggest a renewed finality and a cycle of death that can only be ended if the audience refuses the casting and denies the film’s creation in the first place.
The never-ending cycle that Ramirez engages through his use of the film metaphor is similarly addressed by Danez Smith, a Black, genderqueer, HIV-positive poet, who regularly explores Black trauma in their work, but is deliberate in also exploring themes of joy, love, faith, sex, and humor, among many others. Smith is also a poet who has established themselves, to an even greater extent than Ramirez, through performance and poetry slams as well as multiple publications in various online and print venues, including debut poetry collection [insert] boy, which won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and was a finalist for the LAMBDA Literary Award for poetry, as well as their second collection, National Book Award finalist Don’t Call Us Dead. In addition to these full-length collections, Smith also produced a chapbook of poetry in 2015, titled Black Movie, which explicitly takes on film and film-making as its central motifs.
Smith’s Black Movie thoughtfully employs film as a backdrop to a poetic dialogue regarding Blackness in the twenty-first century, focusing on trauma and death while also exploring dimensions of family, community, and daily ritual that construct a cultural context for contemporary Blackness. As described by Mary Austin Speaker in one of the many reviews for the collection, “Danez Smith’s Black Movie is a cinematic tour-de-force that lets poetry vie with film for the honor of which medium can most effectively articulate the experience of Black America,” explaining that “the book takes an unflinching look at how Black Americans have been portrayed in film, and in doing so posits, initially, film as the ultimate myth-making tool of our era.” [xxii] While Speaker’s review is indicative of much of the positive critical response received by the collection, Smith’s own articulation of their motivations is particularly illuminating as well. In a 2018 interview published in The White Review, Smith described the collection as,
a catalogue of how I was feeling at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. I think of Black Lives Matter as being not only a direct result of police violence but of how black death became an obsession in American mass media. It wasn’t that we hadn’t been being killed or weren’t dying or that police violence had lessened in the years prior, but rather American media decided to turn its attention to police brutality once again in 2013 and 2014. So I really just wanted to capture that moment and what it was like to feel that black death was inescapable both on the TV, via social media, and all these ways in which we were being bombarded by images of black death, while also capturing the depressingness of how that was calling toward a kind of justice that we’d been waiting for for a long time. Because while cases like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown felt very harsh, in our mindset if you are Black American you knew that those stories were not new and that they had been happening since forever. [xxiii]
Smith evokes the sense of historical continuity that pulses through DuVernay and Ramirez’s work while also speaking to the importance of the persistent prominence of images captured on film that gave both the moment, and the collection, its sense of immediacy as well as historical rootedness.
Smith’s description of the inspiration for the collection’s film motif explicitly addresses the challenge inherent in Black artists’ effort to engage with narratives of trauma. Smith explains that, “for any author to be able to delve into depressing or hard topics you need something, and so this idea of films, these sort of mini-movies, this idea of image-making, was a tether that I used to help myself buoy into the work.” [xxiv] More than a “gimmick,” Smith’s use of film allows them an opportunity to explore themes of Black death and pain without making those the central organizing principle of the work. As they explain in another interview, published in The Fourth River in 2017, “we’re always dying or working against dying or in some state of chaos or mourning and violence. Or we’re hyper-sexualized, and dying. Or we’re hyper-athleticisized, and dying. Or hyper-whatever-you-want, and dying. Always dying. Black Movie is attempting to subvert that and engage that too.” [xxv] The effort to both subvert the emphasis on death and trauma, and engage with it, not only fuels the work of Black Movie, but the work of DuVernay, Ramirez, and a bevy of other Black artists as well.
Within Smith’s collection, the poet employs film to varying effect, considering the dimensions of Black life that range from the humorous to the macabre. The collection’s opening poem, “Sleeping Beauty in the Hood,” is one of several that revisit and reimagine fairy tales and children’s stories, yet this poem sets the tone for the collection by directly asking the reader: “You mad? This ain’t no kid flick. There is no magic here.” [xvi] This repeats through additional poems such as “Lion King in the Hood,” which opens with a casting list that recalls Ramirez’s audition exercise, announcing, “Simba played by the first boy you know who died too young,” [xvii] then details opening credits where the film is “brought to you on a tree branch heavy with a tree-colored man,” [xviii] and describes a “Montage: Timon & Pumbaa teach Simba a music other than the blues,” wherein the characters are seen in a series of clips: “clip 1: the boy getting older in spite of everything … clip 10: shot of the boys laughing anyway / clip 11: shot of the boys laughing in the sun / clip 12: shot of the boys laughing in the rain / clip 13: shot of them not being shot.” [xxix] The collection also includes the treatment for films such as “A History of Violence in the Hood,” which “could be a documentary or could be someone’s art school thesis.” [xxx] Smith includes work such as “Short Film,” which refuses to be mired in elegy for such fallen figures as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Renisha McBride, and “Notes for a Film on Black Joy,” which presents vignettes preserved in memory, reflecting on pivotal moments in the poet’s own sexual awakening alongside images of their family, with their mother dancing along when their “auntie ‘nem done finished the wine & put on that Ohio players or whatever album makes them feel blackest” and celebrates their grandmother’s freezer full of food by claiming, “glory be the woman with enough meat to let the world starve but not her family.” [xxxi] For the purposes of this discussion, however, I am most interested in the collection’s concluding poem, “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” which has been recorded in performance on multiple occasions, with film recordings totaling nearly 150,000 views on YouTube:
Danez Smith, “Dinosaurs in the Hood”
As a closing poem, following the various re-castings and re-imaginings of already existing films referenced in the collection, Smith’s “Dinosaurs in the Hood” is distinguished as an ultimate creative act. Not only can this film be completed without another “original” script as its guide, but it is also fueled by the freedom of fantasy, rather than the historical record that serves as the source material for filmmakers like DuVernay. Moreover, from its opening call, “Let’s make a movie,” [xxxii] Smith invites their audience to join in a process whereby the poet and the audience share in complete creative control, unlike the film-already-in-progress for which Ramirez’s Black boy auditions. Here, Smith appeals to no higher authority for decisions about casting or direction, but presents the treatment for a film culled entirely from their own imagination, with only disparate action, comedy, and drama films as its potential inspiration.
Smith engages in a playful spirit throughout the “pitch” for this film, presenting scenarios that range from the hilarious to the profound but never veer into the mainstream or the stereotypical. Each of the standard tropes of action films is skewered and replaced with radical articulations of what a film of this magnitude could possibly be, as Smith describes “a scene where a cop car gets pooped on by a pterodactyl,” scenes with “grandmas on the front porch taking out / raptors with guns they hid in walls & under mattresses,” and wanting “Viola Davis to save the city in the last scene with a black fist afro pick through the last dinosaur’s long, cold-blood neck.” [xxxiii] Smith is purposeful in not only the scenarios that they suggest, but also those that get refused, clarifying that this film is not to be manipulated to serve the purposes of the Wayans Brothers, Will Smith, or Sofia Vergara, but that it is, by design, a celebration of “a neighborhood of royal folks – / children of slaves & immigrants & addicts & exiles saving their town from real ass Dinosaurs.” [xxxiv] Yet, it is in the poet’s declaration about trauma that the poem, and the filmed performance, speak most powerfully to this discussion and the concerns addressed by artists such as DuVernay and Ramirez. As Smith explains:
. . . But this can’t be a black movie. This can’t be a black movie. This movie can’t be dismissed because of its cast or its audience. This movie can’t be a metaphor for black people & extinction. This movie can’t be about race. This movie can’t be about black pain or cause black people pain. This movie can’t be about a long history of having a long history with hurt. [xxxv]
Making a deliberate choice not to center Black trauma and pain, and the history of that pain, Smith does not neglect historical context. Rather, by invoking the presence of extinct dinosaurs within the modern-day neighborhood they describe, history and historical-contemporary continuity permeates the entire poem and is certainly a critical element of the proposed film. Yet, in Smith’s presentation of that history, they draw focus to the battle with a historical threat rather than the damage done by that threat, which reframes how the audience is prepared to view the Black subjects, whose all-encompassing battle drives the imagined film’s plot.
Smith draws this powerfully with an emphasis on a little boy, the focus of the film’s proposed opening scene. Smith describes “a scene where a little black boy is playing / with a toy dinosaur on the bus, then looks out the window / & sees the T‑Rex.” [xvi] Rejecting the influence of a director like Quentin Tarantino, who has famously employed Black actors in films that problematically engage with race, Smith makes clear that the boy’s playtime is not to be corrupted by any white director’s effort to make some larger statement about the precarity of Black boys’ lives and their own accountability in it. Rather, Smith reinforces the image of the boy playing with “a plastic brontosaurus or triceratops” which functions as “his proof of magic or God or Santa.” [xxxvii] Returning to this scene in the poem’s closing, Smith reiterates its importance, declaring with full authority that there be “no bullets in the heroes. & no one kills the black boy, / & no one kills the black boy. & no one kills the black boy,” claiming that “the only reason I want to make this is for that first scene anyway.” [xviii] As poet Lauren Alleyne asserts, much of the power of this poem is held in the fact that “Danez is not asking for a world without the threat. The dinosaurs are still there, and they’re scary. But the threat is not specifically to the boy, and it’s not because he’s Black.” [xxxix] Indeed, though the dinosaurs of the poem are certainly larger-than-life, they are secondary to the narrative that Smith is most concerned with telling. The point of their inclusion is not to focus on the damage that they cause or the trauma left in their wake. Rather, Smith emphasizes the boy’s imagination-fueled playtime, the fullness of which is disrupted by a looming threat that ultimately represents a confirmation and expansion of what the boy had previously believed to be possible. Despite the audience’s impulse to fear for the boy, Smith reminds us that this is not “the foreshadow to his end” and instead encourages us to focus on “his eyes wide & endless / his dreams possible, pulsing, & right there.” [xl] In this moment, Black boyhood innocence is not set up to be eventually shattered, but instead remains the central focus and therefore the most important scene in the film.
Smith, throughout “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” offers unfettered possibility for the creation of a film that might also suggest unrestrained possibilities for its subjects, namely the young boy whose wonderment serves as the film’s primary inspiration. Smith does not avoid the complicated questions surrounding audience, history, or the trauma captured in the process of Black image-making. Rather, they provide their audience with potential scenes of Blackness, captured on film, that incorporate all of these concerns while moving beyond them, presenting a community of Black people whose lives are impacted by their circumstances but not ultimately defined by them. Smith’s performance, particularly when viewed alongside the work of Ava DuVernay and Gabriel Ramirez, offers viewers an opportunity to consider how they might actively participate in Black image-making, simply by accepting the poem’s initial invitation to “make a movie” and join in the creative process.
While Smith’s invitation is explicit, DuVernay and Ramirez likewise extend invitations for their audiences to contend with pain and trauma and to recognize the liberating power of embracing visual texts that refuse to be mired in it. Collectively, these artists encourage audiences to consider the potentiality of active resistance through creative effort and to recognize the power of both producers and consumers, not simply to reject images of trauma but to confront the processes which incite that trauma in the first place. Fully recognizing the “long history of having a long history with hurt” requires neither artists nor audiences to make the work be about that long history. Rather, these works create possibilities for other narratives to emerge, wherein Blackness is articulated in greater and more nuanced dimension by Black artists who no longer seek to play roles crafted by a historical narrative that never envisioned they might write their own scripts and who refuse to subscribe to the limited images made available for when they were allowed to be seen.
[i] Jacqueline N. Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (U of California Press, 2005), 23.
[ii] Anita Bennett, “‘When They See Us’ Watched by More Than 23 Million Netflix Accounts Worldwide,” Deadline (25 June 2019).
[iii] Sasha Lekach, “Crisis Counselors Were on Set for ‘When They See Us’ Cast and Crew,” Mashable (1 June 2019).
[iv] Ida Harris, “Watching ‘When They See Us’ Is an Act of Social Justice,” Black Enterprise (20 June 2019).
[v] Zenobia Jeffries Warfield, “‘When They See Us’ Is Triggering. That’s Why You Should Watch It,” YES! Magazine (5 June 2019).
[vi] KC Ifeanyi, “Opting Out of Black Trauma: Why I Couldn’t Finish When They See Us,” Fast Company (31 May 2019).
[vii] Eisa Nefertari Ulen, “Why I Can’t Bring Myself to Watch ‘When They See Us,’” Truthout (12 June 2019).
[xi] Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford UP, 1997), 3–4.
[xii] Jasmine Nichole Cobb, Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in The Early 19th Century (NYU Press, 2015), 31.
[xiii] Cobb, 34.
[xiv] Jackie Strause, “Ava DuVernay’s ‘Central Park Five’ Netflix Limited Series Gets New Title, Premiere Date,” The Hollywood Reporter (1 March 2019).
[xv] Nadja Sayej, “From ‘Claws’ to ‘When They See Us,’ Niecy Nash Won’t Stay in Her Lane,” Shondaland (31 May 2019). (emphasis added)
[xvi] Cobb, 41.
[xvii] When They See Us, Episode 2.
[xviii] Cobb, 42.
[xix] Ava DuVernay and Bradford Young, “Black Lives, Silver Screen: Ava DuVernay and Bradford Young in Conversation,” Aperture (Summer 2016), 37.
[xx] Gabriel Ramirez, “About.”
[xxi] “Poet Gabriel Ramirez,” Neon Entertainment.
[xxii] Mary Austin Speaker, “Black Movie,” Rain Taxi (Summer 2016).
[xxiii] Sandeep Parmar, “Interview with Danez Smith,” The White Review (June 2018).
[xxv] Cedric Rudolph, “Interview with Danez Smith,” The Fourth River (31 October 2017).
[xxvi] Danez Smith, Black Movie (Button Poetry, 2015), 3.
[xxvii] Smith, 10.
[xxviii] Smith, 11.
[xxix] Smith, 10–16.
[xxx] Smith, 6.
[xxxi] Smith, 36–37.
[xxxii] Smith, 39.
[xviii] Smith, 40.
[xxxix] Lauren Alleyne, Personal Interview (21 August 2019).
[xl] Smith, 40.
Alleyne, Lauren. Personal Interview. 21 August 2019.
Bennett, Anita. “‘When They See Us’ Watched By More Than 23 Million Netflix Accounts Worldwide.” Deadline, 25 June 2019, www.deadline.com/2019/06/when-they-see-us-watched-by-more-than-23-million-netflix-accounts-worldwide-1202638036/.
Cobb, Jasmine N. Picture Freedom: Remaking Black Visuality in the Early Nineteenth Century. NYU Press, 2015.
DuVernay, Ava, and Bradford Young. “Black Lives, Silver Screen: Ava DuVernay and Bradford Young in Conversation.” Aperture, No. 223, Summer 2016, 34–41.
Harris, Ida. “Watching When They See Us Is an Act of Social Justice.” Black Enterprise, 20 June 2019, www.blackenterprise.com/watching-when-they-see-us-is-an-act-of-social-justice/.
Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford UP, 1997.
Ifeanyi, KC. “Opting Out of Black Trauma: Why I Couldn’t Finish When They See Us.” Fast Company, 31 May 2019, www.fastcompany.com/90356727/opting-out-of-black-trauma-why-i-couldnt-finish-when-they-see-us.
Lekach, Sasha. “Crisis Counselors Were on Set for ‘When They See Us’ Cast and Crew.” Mashable, 1 June 2019, www.mashable.com/article/when-they-see-us-central-park-five-crisis-counseling/.
Netflix. “When They See Us | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix.” YouTube, 19 April 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3F9n_smGWY.
Parmar, Sandeep. “Interview with Danez Smith.” The White Review, No. 22, June 2018, www.thewhitereview.org/feature/interview-danez-smith/.
“Poet Gabriel Ramirez.” Neon Entertainment Booking Agency Corporate College Entertainment, www.neon-entertainment.com/poet-gabriel-ramirez/.
Ramirez, Gabriel. “About.” Gabriel Ramirez, www.ramirezpoet.com/about/.
—. “Black Boy Auditions For His Own Funeral.’” YouTube, uploaded by Button Poetry, 3 July 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBnQbEUKfrs.
Rudolf, Cedric. “Interview with Danez Smith.” The Fourth River, 31 Oct. 2017, www.thefourthriver.com/blog/2018/9/21/interview-with-danez-smith.
Sayej, Nadja. “From ‘Claws’ to ‘When They See Us,’ Niecy Nash Won’t Stay in Her Lane.” Shondaland, 31 May 2019, www.shondaland.com/watch/a27612356/niecy-nash-when-they-see-us-interview.
Smith, Danez. Black Movie. Button Poetry, 2015.
—. “Dinosaurs in the Hood.’” YouTube, uploaded by Button Poetry, 4 August. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJwiOTeKDOQ.
Speaker, Mary Austin. “Black Movie.” Rain Taxi, 14 Sept. 2016, www.raintaxi.com/black-movie.
Stewart, Jacqueline N. Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity. U of California Press, 2005.
Strause, Jackie. “Ava DuVernay’s ‘Central Park Five’ Netflix Limited Series Gets New Title, Premiere Date.” The Hollywood Reporter, 1 March 2019, www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/ava-duvernay-central-park-five-netflix-miniseries-new-title-premiere-date-1191659.
Ulen, Eisa Nefertari. “Why I Can’t Bring Myself to Watch ‘When They See Us.’” Truthout, 12 June 2019, www.truthout.org/articles/why-i-cant-bring-myself-to-watch-when-they-see-us/.
Warfield, Zenobia Jeffries. “‘When They See Us’ Is Triggering. That’s Why You Should Watch It.” YES! Magazine, 5 June 2019, www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/netflix-when-they-see-us-ava-duvernay-central-park-five-20190605.
When They See Us. Directed by Ava DuVernay, Netflix, 2019.
McKinley E. Melton, Associate Professor of English at Gettysburg College, earned his doctorate from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. With the support of an ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship, he is the 2019/20 Scholar-in-Residence at James Madison University’s Furious Flower Poetry Center, the nation’s first academic center for Black poetry, which is dedicated to the visibility, inclusion, and critical consideration of Black poets in American letters. Dr. Melton’s work focuses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century Africana literatures, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between literary, social, cultural, and political movements toward social justice. His current project, “Claiming All the World as Our Stage: Contemporary Black Poetry, Performance, and Resistance,” explores spoken word poetry within Black diasporan traditions of orality and performance.