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Consuming Painful Black Art, Responsibly

The last few years have brought a revival of Black art and ramped up a proliferation of Black creatives receiving their flowers while they can smell them, especially at the box office. Is it getting to be too much, though?

Director and filmmaker Ava DuVernay undertook the massive duty of recreating a pivotal legal case in a way we’d never seen before.

Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” tells the story of the Central Park Five and their exoneration after being wrongfully convicted of several charges including rape and attempted murder. Photo courtesy Canva.

Two weeks after its debut last May, “When They See Us,” became Netflix’s most watched series to date. Twenty-three million viewers dove into the series for a peek at the terror these men experienced throughout their boyhood, and for Korey Wise well into adulthood. The #ExoneratedFive, Wise, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Antron McCray, were forced to live a sickening truth too despicable to imagine as fiction. We know the criminal justice system was created for Black and brown people to lose, but it just hits different when we’re taken along the journey, knowing those responsible will never have to live a fraction of what the Exonerated Five did. Did we know what we were getting into?

Crisis counselors were required onset while filming, but we, the viewers, had the luxury of tapping out. I lost count of how many people I talked to who said they couldn’t watch it. The series was too much to handle. I cried through most of the five episodes and entirely during the last one. Recreating grief seamlessly transferred to the audience.

Black folks have been setting boundaries long before self-care became a trending topic. No, we aren’t a monolith, but communally a few rules apply at large: We ain’t eating just anybody’s potato salad; our purses aren’t touching the floor; and with equal amounts of conviction, we’re not watching horror movies. (There are always exceptions, but those people aren’t changing their minds, so don’t try.) In the words of a Charlemagne Tha God (a popular radio personality there’s rarely a reason to quote), “I don’t pay people to scare me.” That’s fair.

As more Black, beautiful and necessary art emerges, can we pause for a minute? The pull to support Black artists has the pull of a civic duty, and it’s hard not to mistake it for one. But are we doing ourselves a disservice in the process? Everyone may not be triggered by a brutal scene but what risks do we take with repeated exposure? Living vicariously through someone doesn’t just apply to travel and relationship goals. It can also spring up in the form of trauma. Does one have to experience a heinous crime personally to be impacted by it? Whether “Queen and Slim” got your coins or you secured a spot for “Just Mercy” in theaters, can we move forward by watching and listening with a little more care? What can we do to better honor us, personally and artistically?


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