Let’s Make a Movie”: Visualizing Blackness Beyond Trauma Through the Lens of Film and Poetry

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).
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Ibid.
[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).
[xxiv] Ibid.
[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.
[xxxi­ii] Ibid.
[xxxiv] Ibid.
[xxxv] Ibid.
[xxxvi] Ibid.
[xxxvii] Ibid.
[xvi­ii] Smith, 40.
[xxxix] Lau­ren Alleyne, Per­son­al Inter­view (21 August 2019).
[xl] Smith, 40.

Works Cit­ed

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.