There are few guarantees in life: Popcorn will always taste better at the movies, student loan debt will follow you to the grave, and America will forever find a way to profit from Black trauma. Hollywood makes sure to drop a feature film every quarter that showcases slave chains and Black bloodshed. Street-influenced Hip Hop songs still receive the most promotion by record labels. And the latest unarmed Black murder by an officer goes viral with views that run concurrently with commercial ads, proving that Black torment is bankable.
Black American history is not a monolith, so it’s confusing that Hollywood only seems to greenlight period pieces with slavery and abuse. From vivid rape scenes like in 12 Years A Slave (56.7 million gross) to a naked Black man hung upside-down, tied and gagged in Django: Unchained ($162 million gross), both present as high-budget torture porn. The understanding is that the more graphic the optic, the more profitable the flick because the painful Black American experience(s) is a goldmine in the entertainment industry.
White America has been entertained by Black struggle since slave owners were listening to captives sing hidden messages of escape in spirituals such as “Wade in The Water.” Fast-forward to blues legends like B.B. King, Etta James, and Z.Z. Hill whose stories of love, heartache, and hard-knock Black life fascinated a white Beatnik Generation who felt “hip” taking it all in from their corner barstools, lit cigarettes in hand. White Suburbanites made a commercial success of the classic Hip Hop album-turn-biopic Straight Outta Compton (three million albums sold, and counting) by NWA, despite its controversial content of profanity, drugs use/selling, and mistreatment of Black women. In the past, white America showcased their fixation through movies and record sales; now, it takes the form of repeated viral moments of Black death.
This country’s historic, twisted proclivity for Black torment can be seen in early Jim-Crow era lynch mob pictures of white smiling faces surrounding Black burn and torture victims. While Mamie Till Mobley’s choice to show her dead, mutilated son Emmet Till—killed in 1955 by two white males because a white woman lied about him flirting with her—was in order to display the horrors of racism and put the nation on notice, white artist Dana Schutz’s Open Casket—a portrait of a slain Till that’s on display at the Whitney Biennial—is a culturally appropriated prop. Black death’s reshowing is so bankable for American success that non-Black and white people like Schutz feel entitled to create Crayola depictions of Black torment and call it art. Now internet commercials run before or simultaneously on YouTube with the murders of Tamir Rice, George Floyd, and Eric Garner whose last words “I Can’t Breathe” may be available for purchase on a T-shirt in a merchandising ad afterward.
The constant display of Black death is profitable to America and with no regard for the demoralizing of the Black spirit it causes. Unfortunately, the United States is far more comfortable with making dollars from Black pain than having any accountability for creating it.