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Black Satire is Just Fine, Maya

Actor Jeffrey Wright as Thelonius

Jeffrey Wright as Thelonius "Monk" Ellison in "American Fiction."

Earlier this month in an essay titled, Black Satire Is Having Its Hollywood Moment, but Something Is Missing, New York Times arts and culture critic Maya Phillips wrote about a trio of movies by Black filmmakers that are now widely available to stream.

About the films, Phillips writes:

… The current moment is defined by a central question: What does the “Black” look like in Black satire films today? Too often lately it’s “not Black enough.”

By that I mean to say a recent influx of films, including The American Society of Magical Negroes, American Fiction and The Blackening have failed to represent Blackness with all its due complexity — as sometimes messy, sometimes contradictory. Instead, they flatten and simplify Blackness to serve a more singular, and thus digestible, form of satirical storytelling.

I've watched all three of these movies, as well as the two Phillips contrasts them with: Jordan Peele's Get Out (2017) and Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You (2018). Frankly, I'm struggling to understand how Phillips reached that particular conclusion.

Alternate title for this blog post: Girl, why are you so wrong?

All of these movies question the boundaries of blackness and white perceptions of it. Get Out and The Blackening also play with horror movie tropes. All of these movies ask Who gets to define what is Authentically Black? and How does the predominant culture consume and reflect Blackness back to us?

Where they differ, I think, is in their approaches and answers. The TL;DR version:

  • The American Society of Magical Negroes is a story about the impact of racism on the day-to-day behaviors of Black people.

  • American Fiction wrestles with the question of whether there's a way to achieve commercial and critical success when the audience and gatekeepers are white people in search of Black authenticity.

  • The Blackening is a horror-parody that explores how Black people define and police our own Blackness.

  • Sorry to Bother You asks whether you're willing to trade in your identity as part of a community and class for individual riches. Its central conflict is similar to that of "American Fiction," though the protagonist reaches a different conclusion under different circumstances.

  • Get Out is a satirical horror-comedy about white consumption of black bodies for labor, sex, and spectator sports that also grapples with white notions of what's inherent to Blackness.

Sorry to Bother You and Get Out use more obvious visual cues, and are riskier works. The other movies use monologue/dialogue to explore these themes.

Where I think Phillips' criticism falls down is when she argues that The American Society of Magical Negroes, American Fiction, and The Blackening avoid being "too Black" to be more digestible, presumably to white audiences.

These movies are very Black, albeit with characters who are buppies or straight-up bourgeois. In lobbing this criticism, Phillips tries to define black authenticity and demonstrates that she misses the point of the movies she's criticized.

American Fiction

Phillips writes:

The foremost example is “American Fiction,” inspired by Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” which won this year’s Oscar for best screenplay. In the film, a Black author and professor named Monk (played by Jeffrey Wright) finds literary success through “My Pafology,” a novel satirizing books that feed negative Black stereotypes. But Monk’s audience receives his book with earnest praise, forcing him to reconcile his newfound prosperity with his racial ethics.

Monk is a cranky, self-important jerk who thinks of himself as an artiste. He writes literature. Because he's an artiste, Monk finds it distasteful to make mass audience, commercially successful art, particularly if it regurgitates negative stereotypes.

Phillips focuses on a scene featuring Monk and his nemesis Sintara Golden. Monk and Sintara are taking a lunch break from a Literary Award committee meeting. The writers, both black, were asked to join the committee to add some diversity. My Pafology — retitled FUCK by the time it's published under the extremely on-the-nose pen name Stagg R. Leigh — is being considered for the award.

During this break, Monk asks Sintara whether she thinks Stagg R.'s fake memoir is any different from her own work. Sintara says that her work is art rooted in authenticity — after all, she conducted extensive research and interviews with people in 'da ghetto.'

Sintara, whom Monk catches reading “White Negroes,” a text about Black cultural appropriation, somehow isn’t winkingly framed as the hypocrite or the inauthentic one pointing out the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of the hero.

Except that she is. She's literally reading and taking notes from a book titled White Negroes. Monk explicitly asks Sintara why she writes hood fiction despite her privileged upbringing, and a degree from Oberlin. Sintara's counter is, essentially: "Some Black people do live that life. Am I so wrong for giving the gatekeepers who buy my manuscripts what they want?"

The gag — that I think Phillips misses — is that Sintara's book We's Lives in Da Ghetto uses ungrammatical African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). The same is true of its title. Both are signals that we should perceive Sintara's book as inauthentic, and as bad art. Bad art can be commercially successful, however, when it matches white audiences' ideas of what's authentically black. And for clarity, I'm not saying that AAVE is ungrammatical. I'm saying that Sintara's prose was ungrammatical AAVE.

For Monk, the dilemma is "Do I have a responsbility not to perform stereotypical notions of blackness in front of a white audience for individual gain?" It's similar to the question Sorry to Bother You asks, though from a different position on the class ladder. Phillips seems to praise Cassius for choosing to retain his identity and class status in Sorry to Bother You. She elides the point that Monk sacrifices his ethics because he needs the money to cover his mother's Alzheimer care. He's forced into the choice, and struggles with it.

The American Society of Magical Negroes

ASMN opens with its protagonist, Aren, crossing an art gallery full of white people. As he moves, he steps around and repeatedly apologizes for having to navigate through clusters of people who are in his way. Shortly thereafter, a white art collector mistakes Aren for a waiter instead of an artist who's work is part of the show.

Of "The American Society of Magical Negroes," Phillips writes:

Aren initially denies that he’s concerned about race but then embraces his role as a magical Negro — until his love life intersects with his first assignment, forcing him to choose between embracing agency over his own life and defying society.

Not exactly. Aren doesn't deny that he's concerned about race. He's in denial about the extent of its impact on his sense of self and how he moves through the world. It's clear that Aren never considered that racism is the reason he shrinks himself, apologizes profusely, and steps out of the way of white people, until it's his job to notice and manage white discomfort.

Phillips again:

Just a few years ago “Get Out” and “Sorry to Bother You” each offered its own sharp satire about how whiteness may break down the Black psyche. While both films build their action around the absurd ways whiteness sabotages the protagonists on a societal level, they differ from the newer satires by representing, either metaphorically or literally, spaces of Black interiority or consciousness damaged by whiteness.

This is a wild conclusion given that Aren's arc begins with Roger asking him why he's so nice and ends with Aren realizing that it's because he feel responsible for making white people feel comfortable with his Blackness. ASMN literally explores how Black people's conciousness and interiority are shaped and damaged by white racism.

I also disagree with the idea that ASMN is a satire. It's more of a magical realist take on the idea of double-consciousness. Black people must be aware of how white people see them individually and collectively and manage those feelings. It's a matter of personal and collective survival.

Phillips continues:

The more obvious layer of satire, addressing white oppression and white guilt, seems aimed at white liberal audiences so they can feel in on the joke.

Yet The American Society of Magical Negroes doesn't deal with white guilt. Indeed white characters guiltlessly use Aren and Blackness to advance their own interests. But Aren doesn't save them from themselves, in line with the Magical Negro trope. Instead ASMN subverts the trope. White characters are there to support the growth of the Black protagonist.

The American Society of Magical Negroes also draws a parallel between the emotional labor that Black people perform, and the emotional work that straight women engage in. At the movie's end, we learn that the "SO SWAG" novelty ring Aren's love interest carries in her bag actually reads S.O.S.W.A.G. She's a member of the Society of Supportive Wives and Girlfriends.

The Blackening

I think The Blackening is the funniest of these three movies, although the acting is uneven and B-story superfluous. Of it, Phillips writes:

Like “American Fiction,” it falls into the trap of building its scaffolding from an outside look at Blackness, as something defined by and reactionary against whiteness. The result is another film that neglects being “too Black” — skimping on an interior look into Blackness that may sometimes contradict or betray itself.

Is the movie's view of Blackness defined by and reactionary against whiteness, or is it aware of how white people perceive Blackness independently of how we define it for ourselves? Here too, I think the The Blackening flirts with DuBois' idea of double-consciousness.

The second sentence of that quote is flat-out incorrect. As a group, these characters repeatedly recalibrate their responses and behaviors to accommodate white characters and each other. I'm not sure how that isn't an illustration of an interior look into Blackness.

Moreover, when they have to decide who's the Blackest — the Blackest is who'll be killed first — they quickly realize the limits of their own defintions. So when Phillips writes the following, I wonder whether we watched the same edit of the movie.

Blackness is so singularly defined — these Black friends are celebrating Juneteenth, and the game asks them questions about rap lyrics and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” — that neither the plot’s action nor the comedy surprises.

Nevermind that Dewayne, explicitly says that trying to define Blackness is subjective. Nevermind that the group of characters includes a biracial black woman, a gay man, a child of black immigrants, and a man who's traded thug life for the soft life.

The reveal that the nerdy Trump-voting Black character (played by Jermaine Fowler) is the true bad guy is obvious, and says little on a satirical level beyond that “illegitimate” or “inauthentic” Blackness is dangerous and easy to spot.

Once again, I disagree with Phillips' genre classification. The Blackening is more horror-parody than satire. Clifton the nerdy Trump-voting Black character, isn't saying anything on a satirical level. Instead his purpose is to force the friend crew and the viewer to interrogate their own beliefs about Blackness. The titular game is Clifton's elaborate plot to exact revenge for when the crew teased and embarassed him for not being Black enough after he reneged in a game of Spades.

Phillips is policing Blackness

One fair criticism of all three films is that they don't reflect the experiences of most black people. Monk is an professor/writer from a family of doctors. Aren is an artist turned graphic designer. Every character in "The Blackening" is a college graduate.

Phillips seems to be arguing, however, that she doesn't know any people like these characters, so they must be inauthentic. Or perhaps they're too familiar to her, and she feels conflicted about her own Blackness and privilege.

Phillips holds up They Cloned Tyrone — a Netflix series whose protagonists are a drug dealer, pimp, and prostitute — as an example of a show that is honest and complicated and, at the very least, inclusive of the people it depicts.

I hope you see the problem here. Yes, some Black people are drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes. Others are doctors, artists, lawyers, and teachers. No one character or story can capture all of our diversity.

I'm sympathetic to an argument that the characters in ASMN, American Fiction, and The Blackening are one-dimensional. I reject out of hand the idea that these characters are somehow "not Black enough."

How to watch

American Fiction, The American Society of Magical Negroes, and The Blackening are all available to buy or rent on Amazon Prime.

  • American Fiction is included with an Amazon Prime Video subscription.
  • The American Society of Magical Negroes is available to Peacock subscribers at no additional cost.
  • The Blackening is available to Starz subcribers at no additional cost.

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