This is the first column in a four-part series by Nicholas Whittaker on black horror. New installments will be published monthly.
Black art—or, art about blackness—is in crisis. So we’ve been told, anyways. The cause of this state of emergency has been named, with the unmistakable rustle of clutched pearls, “black trauma porn.”
This is the story. Black art has been trapped—perhaps since Sidney Poitier’s Christlike angst in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), perhaps even since Gus squirmed under a neo-Confederate microscope in Birth of a Nation (1915)—within a stultifying mandate: to depict, for the sake of entertainment and edification, black suffering. This is the art that is funded, circulated and honored. Central works of art about blackness, works as incongruous as Beloved and The Blind Side, are united by their commitment to depicting that suffering. And not merely depicting it: black trauma porn titillates, triggering animalistic, sadistic pleasure principles in white viewers while retraumatizing black viewers. This titillation becomes the sole purpose of black art.
Trapped within this field of ugliness, black viewers have long pleaded for something different: for #blackgirlmagic, for #blackboyjoy, for positive representation, for black doctors and lawyers and happy families and healthy citizens and pharaohs and queens of Bridgerton. Such alternatives now saturate the mainstream art world, whether of gallery art or pop cinema. The key turning point—according to this narrative—was the 2016 film Moonlight, winner of Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards. Where most of the (very few) Best Picture winners about blackness had explicitly focused on the tragedy of anti-blackness (think 12 Years a Slave, the Best Picture winner in 2013), Moonlight was a film about a black man who loves another black man that ends with the two safe in each other’s arms.
Moonlight’s victory was touted as proof of a black consensus: we, “black people” as a smooth, dense constituency, insist on busting the confines of black trauma porn and telling stories of black triumph. The film’s release led to the growing proliferation of the hashtag “#blackboyjoy.” A stark dichotomy emerged, with, on the one hand, 12 Years a Slave, The Help and UNICEF ads of starving African children on TV, and, on the other, Kenya Barris’s entertainment empire, Bridgerton’s Queen Charlotte and the viral Corn Kid. And popular culture began to drift closer to a near-exclusive attention toward the “joyful” end of that split.
But this story is troubled by an exception, a haunting counterinsurgency that becomes more curious the longer one tarries with it. The year after Moonlight’s victory, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to Guillermo del Toro’s A Shape of Water, a dark fantasy film by the director of horror classics such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak and Cronos. This was only the second time a horror film received this award (the first was 1991’s Silence of the Lambs). But it was not the only horror film nominated that year. The second: Jordan Peele’s Get Out—a story of a black man under assault by white Americans. Specifically, it is the story of a black man discovering that racism, even in its microaggressive disguise, is a massive, supernatural conspiracy, an impossible, inhuman enterprise. Get Out, in other words, depicts black suffering using the tropes and narrative beats of a classic horror film.
In the 2010s, horror cinema became undeniably mainstream. This included horror films explicitly concerned with blackness and black suffering. Starting with Get Out, these black horror movies—Us and Them, His House and Bad Hair, Zombi Child, Saloum, Antebellum, Candyman and so on—have received a degree of audience and critical attention that borders on shocking, given the subgenre’s historical consignment to cinematic ghettoization. Previously the stuff of “hood flicks” like Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror, black horror films now earn laudatory think pieces from the New York Times and make over $100 million at the box office. And the vast majority of them have explicitly taken anti-black violence as their main focus, using the genre to allegorize or poeticize the brutal “reality” of black life.
What’s curious is that this black horror boom not only occurred alongside the growing chorus against black trauma porn, but remained largely unmolested by it, even celebrated. Get Out was released two days before Moonlight’s Oscar victory; it was immediately universally acclaimed. No #blackboyjoy campaign was launched upon its release. Indeed, black horror rarely played a role in the cultural conversation about black trauma porn until a few years later, when three works—Antebellum (2020), Lovecraft Country (2020) and most especially Them (2021)–drew near-universal condemnation. They were accused of trafficking in trauma porn; but such accusations nearly always qualified themselves by insisting that their criticisms did not apply to black horror simpliciter. Take Angelica Jade Bastién’s critique of Them, an Amazon Prime TV series that follows a 1950s black family’s haunted move from North Carolina to a suburban white neighborhood in Los Angeles. In her review, she suggests that, in the series, “nothing sticks, nothing scares, and nothing unnerves.” She nonetheless also insists that the show “only knows how to wring terror from the pain we experience”; her review is titled “Them Is Pure Degradation Porn.” On her account, terror is both present and absent. Them fails to make us suffer—the aim of horror—but also makes us suffer—the byproduct of black trauma porn. This ought to feel slightly paradoxical. How could “pure degradation porn” fail to “unnerve”?
This inconsistency suggests a deeper problem. The experience of terror is summoned when necessary: to condemn the work as trauma porn. But that very experience is what Bastién craves! Critics are deeply invested in black horror—they want something that “unnerves.” Yet it is not clear what that means to them. What feeling are these critics, and audiences, chasing? Why does a genre dead set on wringing pain from black life feel so important to those who condemn art that wrings pain from black life? Answering these questions would help to explain black horror’s meteoric rise. And it would allow us to understand what, precisely, we come to black art for, such that black horror has become its form de rigueur. But to do so, we’ll need to move past the black trauma porn narrative that has become so ubiquitous. Black horror is more than the exception to that narrative; it is its collapse.
Oddly, that collapse is presaged in the triumph of Moonlight. In his acceptance speech, director Barry Jenkins declared: “There was a time when I thought this movie was impossible, because I couldn’t bring it to fruition, I couldn’t bring myself to tell another story. So everybody behind me on this stage [gesturing to the cast and crew] said, ‘No, that is not acceptable.’” Jenkins here articulates a kind of creative exhaustion: the exhaustion of his cinematic capacity, of his ability to generate a story, and the weariness that this emptiness generates. Of course, the black trauma porn narrative lays claim to exhaustion too—it’s typical to hear that art that peddles in such tropes is tired. But Jenkins’s speech does not easily fit into this narrative. For it is Moonlight that exhausted him, not its opposite. He doesn’t suggest that making Moonlight was a restorative alternative to the ubiquity of black trauma cinema. Rather, making the film felt impossible. What did he mean by this?
There is another narrative of exhaustion circulating in contemporary discourse about black art. We can call this exhaustion in the face of the mandate to communicate: the relentless insistence that black people must share black life with those who, it might be said, do not live it. Black art, in this narrative, is itself exhausting, a laborious task in which the black artist sells, or gives, black life away, to those who do not have it and do not want it but want to learn from it or dance to it or own it. Could the pressures of such a mandate be what Jenkins is trying to articulate? After all, he does point to others who insist that his silence is “not acceptable.” But to Jenkins, this insistence is a lifeline; it rescues him from exhaustion, rather than inducing it. The crisis he describes is not one of having to tell a story, but of being unable to.
I keep returning to those words: “I couldn’t bring myself to tell another story.” To know what to say is, for the philosopher Stanley Cavell, a matter of conviction. One does not build this knowledge through access to some pristine truth or some metaphysically pure object of logical validity. (Indeed, the search for purity is often what reduces us to silence, waiting before the dizzy precipice beyond which, we are told, lies surety.) Rather, conviction is found in “our presentness to the world.” Such presentness is not found in proof of that world’s existence, but in the fact that we care about it. Conviction occurs when the significance of things, the way things matter, falls upon us in the everyday process of living. In its lack, one becomes haunted by the world. It gains a spectral pseudo-presence that exhausts, draining one of the motivation to speak, and to live.
Both the communicative mandate and our narrative of exhaustion in the face of it often reveal an odd, spooky greediness for “black life” as always accessible to those who live it, as a possession we have and can give away or refuse to give away whenever we feel like it. Take, for example, the insistence on black stories written by black writers, and the unspoken implication that black writers should only write about black stories, because that is what they know. Black life becomes a truth, one we can authentically re-present to you. If Jenkins is simply exhausted in the face of such an insistence, then he already knows what he needs to communicate; he is just tired of putting it into words (that you would understand).
I do not mean to suggest that this communicative mandate does not exist, that it is not exhausting, or that it mustn’t be eradicated. But in our near-exclusive attention to that crisis, we lose a sense of the artist as someone who experiences the world opaquely and obliquely, and we lose a sense of art as the work of living (a necessary quotidian and mystical experience) and telling stories about it (a constant and uncontrollable task). In a world in which blackness is rendered so transparent as to be invisible, so known as to be unknowable, so overdetermined as to be underdetermined, such work requires great conviction. It wears Jenkins out.
What if the exhaustion born out of the incessant wave of black trauma porn is not an excess of feeling, but its lack? The problem is not that it brings us face to face with black suffering; the problem is that it disappears it from our view without making it go away. Pornography, as Audre Lorde wrote, “emphasizes sensation without feeling.” Black trauma porn, likewise, renders violence distant, diffident—an egregious crime when one considers how consequential black suffering really is.
The words “black life” immediately summon up a dizzying montage of images and sounds, mythological presuppositions of what that life is or is supposed to be. Think of the true weight of the stereotype, the symbol that overtakes real people and renders it impossible to see them but through its ugly, dense gloss. Race is a particularly spooky action at a distance. A camera obscura summons phantoms called “Sambo” or “Black Woman at the Podium” that transform the entire world into a specter of itself. Flesh and blood—real and fantastical alike—is dematerialized into biological and political categories. This is a condemnation to ghostliness that the critic and theorist Hortense Spillers knows well:
Let’s face it. I am a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name. “Peaches” and “Brown Sugar,” “Sapphire” and “Earth Mother,” “Aunty,” “Granny,” God’s “Holy Fool,” a “Miss Ebony First,” or “Black Woman at the Podium”: I describe a locus of confounded identities, a meeting ground of investments and privations in the national treasury of rhetorical wealth. My country needs me, and if I were not here, I would have to be invented.
Black trauma porn is such a camera obscura. It dissolves the brutal, beautiful, material, murky presence of the world—a world structured by great evil and great joy—into a ceaseless flow of banalities. Must we accept this? Must black suffering—saturating the air we breathe, the bones creaking within us—be made so immaterial?
In the 2020 Netflix film His House, a Sudanese refugee named Bol is nearly slaughtered by a horde of monstrous ghosts from his past, before banishing them with the flick of a light switch. He presses himself against the wall, hand clutching at his throat, unable to scream or cry or run, reduced to a mass of howling nerves and clenched sinew: horrified. I watch this man, transformed in ways I cannot comprehend, and I do not feel what he feels, but I feel something. I feel uneasy and unstable, in the undeniable presence of a being in pain. I am not traumatized; I am undone by his terror. To be overwhelmed in this way: What else is art for?
The abolition of pornography demands, is, the establishment of eroticism, not an absence of sensation but an excess of feeling. The explosion of black horror at the precise moment of black trauma porn’s repudiation suggests that our desire to access black suffering is, at least for now, insatiable. Alongside the essential critiques of the dangerous forms that this desire can take, we must consider the fact that this explosion reveals not just the avidness of this desire but the fact that it was not being met, and that perhaps we ought to strive to meet it. Perhaps there is something genuinely radical, something thrillingly, potently ethical, about that erotic satisfaction, that overwhelming rush of feeling, in the face of suffering. And perhaps black horror achieves that satisfaction where other artistic strategies fail. That failure might be the true evil of black trauma porn: it covers up that need, or offers a facsimile of relief.
But can black horror succeed in eroticizing black suffering? And is such a project even worthwhile? This column is birthed from these questions. Its three installments will explore three black horror films—Son of Ingagi (1940), J.D.’s Revenge (1976), and Atlantics (2019)—to illuminate the indispensable possibilities of black art about black suffering. These films are only moments in a vast, ongoing tradition—the exploration of black horror has been well under way, in the underside of horror and black cinema alike, long before Get Out told us to sink. Now is the time for a descent, in search of great conviction; in search of an old story, once more with feeling.