OP-ED: Is Our Pain For Profit? How TV Documentaries Are Showcasing Black Tragedies
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America has been profiting off of our pain since we arrived in this country. That’s not a new fact. But in the past couple of years, every time you turn on the TV there seems to be a new documentary, a new special, a new TV series or movie about the creation of tragedies throughout our communities. From Trayvon Martin to Kalief Browder and Sandra Bland — and even when it comes to our music royalty like Whitney Houston — we’re constantly bombarded of reminders that more respect seems to be paid attention to Black lives after we’re no longer here. If it’s not on TV, it’s all over our timelines and feeds being replayed over and over again. It feels like a 24-7 cycle of trauma that you can easily suck you in, and it’s starting to feel like our pain is being commodified into TV specials and documentaries. This is not a new thing — the commodifying of our pain. We all know that this country was built on the backs of those who were enslaved. In some states, the images of the enslaved were literally printed on money. And we don’t even have to go down the long laundry list of the way our country has profited off of our plight.
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There’s clearly a fine line between compassion and consumerism. We can’t discount how these projects make an impact along with deeply enlightening viewers after sifting through the 24-hour news cycle — a news cycle that oftentimes has an ability to misinform thanks to innate bias. “If you know all this stuff, great. Pass it on. If you don’t know it, know it,” Ava DuVernay told The Atlantic about the power behind her doc, 13th, which traces how the Thirteenth Amendment led to mass incarceration. “You need to know it. Because at this point, after you see 13th, silence in this case is consent.” The families of the victims of police brutality and heinous hate crimes have every right to share their loved ones stories. After all, Zora Neale Hurston once warned that “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” And we’ve seen what happens when we express our pain and how it can change the course of history.

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In 1955, it was Mamie Till’s determination to have the open casket photos published in Jet magazine that showed exactly what her son endured before his death, which sparked the movement. This was a move of ownership. But last year, when a white artist’s painting of Emmett Till made its way into a biennial exhibition, the impact had an unsettling feeling. That was a move of privilege. While the artist had no intentions of making any profit off the “art,” protestors felt that the artist didn’t have the privilege to create something that speaks so closely to the wounds of our history. That leaves space to wonder: who gives the green light to create content out of our suffering? Is it even possible to monetize the struggle? And even if it is possible, will the people who really need the profits receive them? For Sandra Bland’s family, who is supporting the HBO documentary, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland,  they threw their voices behind Bland’s documentary because of their desperate need for answers, they told ESSENCE. And filmmaker Kate Davis said it was her hope to let this doc “speak for so many others who have died in police custody or at the hands of police.” We want the awareness, we want the world to feel our rage, we want to make space for the anger, the injustice, to hold up a mirror to America to show the truth. In “the land of the free,” we’re still fighting for our freedom in many ways, and this “media moment” featuring the death of Black people, seems like an easy cop out if not treated carefully. How do we ensure that the platforms investing in these stories are really invested in change? What and who are they committed to? Or are they more invested in the ratings and numbers?

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The people who need to see these documentaries, the ones who are uninformed about the tragedies that our communities face, the ones who benefit from our culture but don’t understand our plights, are the ones who could benefit the most from watching the array of news specials on these victims. While it’s so important to be mindful of what we consume and how we consume it, we may not be able to tune completely out since it’s hard to decipher what lends itself to real progress and what is just for the perception of profit-minded companies and mainstream America. Ultimately, we’re not the ones who need a history lesson. We need more solutions, more initiatives, more funding, more resources. Honing in on our pain doesn’t give us the opportunity to focus on the many people and organizations, who are fighting daily against the multiple injustices in our communities. I’d rather not subscribe to the tragedies. I’d rather instead explore how I can help to create change in the world around me in big and small ways; in ways that are substantial, impactful, healing, and moving us forward.


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