HBO featured Lovecraft Country, a fantasy series that premiered in August and toured the United States from the 1950s along with the Korean War, space, and a number of moments in the distant past. “Them” recently hit Amazon and happily transforms the racist integration of the 50s into a horror series set in a white suburb. At least two films have been made about government agencies molesting prominent black Americans – and in Fred Hampton’s case shot to death in their sleep. Previously there were films like “The Hate U Give” about a teenager who was pulled in protest after the police shot her friend down. and “Queen & Slim”, in which two cop killers go on the run and somehow fall in love. This is to start with.
Some of this work can be as lyrical as Lee’s. Despite its reliance on metaphor and genre, it feels dependent on some kind of moral literalism – or maybe just plain obvious. The spread of racism oppresses the characters, the actions, and maybe even us. This is how racism works, of course. But here there is no room for ideas or personalities to declare themselves. The feeling of doom is totalizing and dampening. Characters cannot connect or think meaningfully without the intrusion of ghosts, monsters, or the FBI
That is not to say that there is no way to imagine a wedding in the American crisis and magical realism. A few years ago “Guardians” fused the fight against white supremacy with superhero myths. The merger never felt gratuitous because its makers seemed to understand deeply what they were up to and took the time to fully reveal this to us. Too often the crisis invites opportunism.
In the 1970s, when black nationalism became the dominant political mode of blacks, something amazing happened to American films. You have blackers. Before 1968, Sidney Poitier had basically changed the country herself. then a galaxy of other faces materialized beside him. But it pretty quickly became clear – courtesy of Gems and Scabies – that criminal, heroic, and others would be preoccupied with most of these films, many of which were made by black men. “Blaxploitation” they called it, partly because of its nearsightedness.
A similar monomania is back for this latest boom in black screen printing. The crime now is discrimination to make the past indistinguishable in the present home and the present from the past. Continuums bend in loops. The characters feel largely like victims. And work can exploit an audience’s hunger to see themselves just as much as the ’70s stuff – but without humor, wired electricity, or invigorating cheek. (Boy, do you miss them now?) Here, too, there is thought and corners cut; Genre presets are used here, making atrocities superfluous.
Some of these works try to capture the surrealism of racism that Jordan Peele invented for “Get Out”. While this film introduced a critique of the black personality’s white desires into popular culture, it was also about the fear of losing oneself, the leap into a “sunken place” that leads to a racist lobotomy. The fears are external. What is more important is that they are existential.