It's fair to say that there are far too many narratives that centralise black suffering. Hollywood in particular has been heavily criticised for capitalising on this, with many of the critically acclaimed films that have come out in recent years, still revolving around the subjugation of black people. Coupled with the fact that there aren’t many acclaimed black movies, to begin with, it seems as though institutions will only hail art with specific black storylines: those underpinned by subjugation.
Not only is it traumatic to have to witness distress inflicted on black bodies over, and over again, it also reiterates the already echoed message that blackness is synonymous to misery or distress. It is also concerning because of the possibility that it creates an invisible barrier for black creators, trapping them into feeling the need to ascribe to only telling these kinds of stories in order to legitimise their work. It encourages the implicit sentiment that as long as you are black and you occupy a space within the creative industry, then you are burdened by the responsibility to put forward black injustices in your work.
As suffering is a natural part of human existence, it’s not feasible to be opposed to black creators using it as a reference for their content. But surely there are ways to portray us interacting with suffering without retelling the singular narrative we have seen far too many times.
One such black creator who explores this in his work is Arinzé Kene. His play, Misty, whose success transferred it to the West End’s Trafalgar studios (making it only the second by a black British playwright) is a lively and lyrical take on a young black man navigating London. While that storyline unfolds, the play cleverly introduces an adjacent storyline featuring a playwright, Arinzé, who struggles to write the former storyline whilst battling others’ expectations and opinions of him as a writer. The most pressing one vehemently expressed by his friends, is that he is writing “a nigger play,” yet another depiction of a poor young black man from inner city London whose life resembles a series of (systematic) unfortunate events. Throughout the production the playwright maintains that this is an unfair judgment by his friends and those who share this sentiment. In this way, for most of the play Misty offers the following challenges: it is hard enough to be a writer let alone a black writer, where your blackness seems to invite people to openly comment on what you should or should not write about; that whether they perpetuate a narrative some would rather not see, these “nigger plays” illustrate a lot of people’s realities and these stories deserve to be told as much as other stories.
These challenges highlight the aforementioned thought; that it might be as stifling to demand that black creators completely stray from the themes of suffering in their work, especially considering how entangled these are into our realities. So how do black creators decide what narratives are ok to put forward?
In the end of the play, it is revealed that the young black man from the former storyline was elaborately conjured by the playwright’s mind so he did not actually exist.
This plot twist reveals a more middle ground solution to the dilemma. It is apparent that there will always be consequences to consider with any narrative put forward and while this is a peril all creators have to conquer, black ones have to come to terms with the fact that theirs are arguably more pertinent. This is because they are likely to inform the way blackness will be perceived. So the warning by the friends in the play, although harsh, is not inaccurate. Especially as it focuses on a very specific portrayal of suffering in the first storyline, which we have deter- mined is truly overdone and detrimental.
Black audiences are more than ready for new, fresh, insightful ways of chronicling black experiences, which either don’t have suffering at their epicenter or that portray us interacting with suffering without retelling the detrimental singular narrative. We need to allow blackness the chance to be further explored as the truly multilayered and intricate experience it is through visual art. And it would be remiss not to existing works that do this brilliantly: the afore- mentioned Misty is an example itself. Also, the contemporary TV shows: Insecure, Atlanta, and Chewing Gum; the oldie Set it Off and the more recent films Moonlight and Been So Long. Its absolutely imperative that black creators feel more encouraged to create more complex narratives and to experiment as well as push boundaries while they do so.