What is an image worth? Specifically, what is the image of a dead Black man worth? If you had to guess, how much do you think an image of a Black man fatally wounded would go for, his body chilling against the pavement as a pool of blood— in the shape of Africa, just in case the symbolism wasn’t clear—forms next to him?
Not sure? Too uncomfortable a thought? According to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, that man—and the story of his death, rather than the story of his life—is worth Hollywood’s highest distinction: Oscar gold.
James, fortunately, is not a real person. Played by the rapper Joey Badass, he is the fictional protagonist of Two Distant Strangers, a film by screenwriter and comedian Travon Free that won Best Live Action Short Film at Sunday night’s ceremony. James, unfortunately, is meant to be a symbol. He’s meant to represent the gross inevitability of Black manhood in America: a target of white supremacist terror.
The movie exploits a sci-fi gimmick to make its argument. Think Groundhog Day, but horror. James is stuck in a time loop, and what begins as the best day of his life turns into his worst—and last. The real depravity of the plot is in how his demise plays out: Through the course of the film, James dies exactly 100 times at the hands of a white police officer. If getting killed 100 times feels extreme, if it feels disturbingly inappropriate, that is the point—the visceral horror of a Black man being fatally gunned down by a cop, the movie suggests, is a nightmare Black people can never wake from.
Everywhere one looks, Black people are being terrorized and killed—harassed while walking down the street, stopped and questioned while driving. Through shaky camera-phone footage, we see them annihilated without a second thought. The spectacle of pain is unrelenting, a nauseating recitation of trauma that pulls focus to the end of a life, not what happened during it. In recent years, camera phone recordings have been critical in amplifying racial issues. But awareness and amplification come with a toll. For Black people, the cost of attention is the constant reminder of our suffering. The phenomenon can’t be escaped, no matter how hard one tries. From lived reality to television to social media, it is all consuming. It is all the time. It is never going to end.
And so the pop culture machinery dutifully churns, relying on imagery soaked in a kind of retrograde myopia. The latest instance is Them. An Amazon series centered on a working-class Black family that moves to a white Los Angeles suburb in the early 1950s, it reaches the same conclusion as Two Distant Strangers: Black people, and Black life, are objects of unwant. Misery is the sole prism through which we meet and understand the Emory family. They are subjected to beastly mistreatment, but other horrors lurk in their new neighborhood, some more obvious than others. They are surrounded by suffering, by hate. They can’t escape it. It’s the reason they fled North Carolina and also what greets them in sunny, seemingly paradisiacal Compton. The series recycles the same stomach-turning vision of pain and cultural emptiness that is rewarded on social media, the kind of fare that revolves around the physical and cultural theft of bodies.
In both Them and Two Distant Strangers, bodies are beaten. Again and again bodies are beaten. Bodies are raped, bodies are burned, bodies are fetishized, bodies are killed. Bodies become vectors of unimaginable vitriol, of home-baked racism. And in this version of Black suffering, in this hokey and too-easy symbolism, there is a danger in being a witness, in seeing such continuous torment. For these projects, to be Black is to be traumatized, only and always.
And maybe because I see this pain so readily, and sometimes experience it personally, I wonder: Who do they think it is for? What good is all of this pain doing any of us when we live with it daily?
Black Horror—the genre to which these projects belong; Them in a much more literal sense—is a province rich with ideas and notions about all facets of Black life. It’s perhaps one of the more fertile cinematic canvases on which to let loose arguments about class conflict or policing or the psychological terror of race, and how whiteness eats at the mind. Shows like Atlanta or movies like Get Out epitomize the genre through their range; unlike Them or Two Distant Strangers, they are aware horror is not solely about horror. What gives the genre its texture is how it is shaded in, and thus how its story is told, beyond its limitations.
Alongside the release of these two projects was the broadcast of the Derek Chauvin trial. Testimony spread across four weeks and placed Black suffering front-and-center on TV for hours every day. Clips cycled through social media, where many of the most striking witness statements went viral. All of it was a reminder that to seek justice is to constantly replay the very trauma you hope to avenge. Chaunvin was ultimately found guilty for the murder of George Floyd. He has yet to be sentenced.
Early in the trial, an exchange between attorney Eric Nelson and Donald Williams II caught my eye. Williams witnessed the fatal encounter and later called 911 after Floyd was taken away in an ambulance. “I did call the police on the police,” he told the court. “Because I believe I witnessed a murder.” During the cross-examination, as Nelson tried to portray Williams as an irate bystander, he said something I haven’t been able to unhear. Williams told him, “I stayed in my body. You can’t paint me out to be angry.”
The statement—“I stayed in my body”— suggests not civility, that state in which Black people are expected to carry themselves at all times, which is really just another mechanism of subjugation, of social ordering, but instead control. The statement also suggests that Floyd, in the eyes of Chauvin, was out of his body. That Michael Brown, according to the testimony of Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, was out of his body. That Ma’Khia Bryant was out of her body. That just last week, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, Andrew Brown Jr. was out of his body.
I hear it and find it kind of miraculous, not because the statement isn’t true and right, but because the future has seldom been kind to Black people, and has often only understood us as outside our bodies. Again and again, it has tried to root us, to violently define us, in suffering, in anger, in grief. The power is in how Williams says it, in how he keeps his peace. He doesn’t let Nelson rip it from him, he doesn’t let him rob him of his authority. He doesn’t let someone else categorize him as a single, tragic thing.
And maybe I find myself so moved by these words, transported by them, because for the last year and change I have been trying to figure out what to do with my body, how to live in it and with it and in spite of everything that has tried to destroy it. I don’t always know. But I do know what I—what we—are not.
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