Black Satire Is Having Its Hollywood Moment, But Something Is Missing

By Maya Phillips
New York Times
Jeffrey Wright in American Fiction. Photo / AP

Maya Phillips explores the current moment in Black satire films, considering how recent iterations tackle the complex genre.

In 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a critical and commercial smash that immediately became one of the defining movies of the Trump Era. The next year, Boots Riley’s masterful Sorry seemed to herald a new golden age for Black satire films. But as those movies stood out for using surreal plot twists to humorously — and horrifically — unpack complex ideas like racial appropriation and consumer culture, the crop that has followed hasn’t kept pace. The current moment is defined by a central question: What does the “Black” look like in Black satire films today? Too often lately it’s “not Black enough.”

By that I mean to say a recent influx of films, including The American Society of Magical Negroes, American Fiction and The Blackening, have failed to represent Blackness with all its due complexity — as sometimes messy, sometimes contradictory. Instead, they flatten and simplify Blackness to serve a more singular, and thus digestible, form of satirical storytelling.

The foremost example is American Fiction, inspired by Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, which won this year’s Oscar for best screenplay. In the film, a Black author and professor named Monk (played by Jeffrey Wright) finds literary success through My Pafology, a novel satirising books that feed negative Black stereotypes. But Monk’s audience receives his book with earnest praise, forcing him to reconcile his newfound prosperity with his racial ethics.

The surface layer of satire is obvious: The white audiences and publishing professionals who celebrate My Pafology do so not because of its merits but because the book allows them to fetishise another tragic Black story. It’s a performance of racial acceptance; these fans are literally buying into their own white guilt.

Monk’s foil in the film is another Black author, Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), who publishes a popular book of sensationalist Black trauma about life in the ghetto. Profiting on her white audience’s racist assumptions about Blackness, Sintara is this satire’s race traitor — or so it initially seems. Because when, in one scene, Monk questions whether Sintara’s book is any different from My Pafology, which she dismisses as pandering, she counters that she is spotlighting an authentic Black experience. Sintara accuses Monk of snobbery, saying that his highfalutin’ notion of Blackness excludes other Black experiences because he is too ashamed to recognise them.

"This adaptation seems to misunderstand that Erasure is as much a critique of how white audiences perceive these black characters’ art and their identities as it is about how the characters decide to manipulate or contradict these perceptions." Photo / AP
"This adaptation seems to misunderstand that Erasure is as much a critique of how white audiences perceive these black characters’ art and their identities as it is about how the characters decide to manipulate or contradict these perceptions." Photo / AP

But the fact that it is Sintara who voices the film’s criticism of Monk shows how loath American Fiction is to make a value statement on the characters’ actions within the context of their Blackness. Sintara, whom Monk catches reading White Negroes, a text about Black cultural appropriation, somehow isn’t winkingly framed as the hypocrite or the inauthentic one pointing out the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of the hero.

This adaptation seems to misunderstand that Erasure is as much a critique of how white audiences perceive these Black characters’ art and their identities as it is about how the characters decide to manipulate or contradict these perceptions. American Fiction takes the easy way out by making both of these characters right, a move which undercuts the nuances of how Monk and Sintara are negotiating themselves as Black people and the ethical weight of their choices.

In the similarly watered-down comedy-horror film The Blackening, a group of Black college friends reunites in a remote cabin for a Juneteenth celebration. Once there, the friends are hunted and threatened by unknown assailants and forced to play a minstrel-style trivia game proving their Blackness.

The racial satire of The Blackening is straightforward: The villains are white people who appropriate, sell and kill Black bodies. And the whole concept of the film is based on that common racist horror film trope in which the Black character is the first to die.

Like American Fiction, it falls into the trap of building its scaffolding from an outside look at Blackness, as something defined by and reactionary against whiteness. The result is another film that neglects being “too Black” — skimping on an interior look into Blackness that may sometimes contradict or betray itself.

Blackness is so singularly defined — these Black friends are celebrating Juneteenth, and the game asks them questions about rap lyrics and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — that neither the plot’s action nor the comedy surprises. The reveal that the nerdy Trump-voting Black character (played by Jermaine Fowler) is the true bad guy is obvious, and says little on a satirical level beyond that “illegitimate” or “inauthentic” Blackness is dangerous and easy to spot.

The American Society of Magical Negroes, a title that references a particular character trope seen in movies like The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance, also fails to offer a three-dimensional depiction of Blackness. In the movie, a meek Black man named Aren (Justice Smith) is introduced to the titular group by longtime member Roger (David Alan Grier). Aren initially denies that he’s concerned about race but then embraces his role as a magical Negro — until his love life intersects with his first assignment, forcing him to choose between embracing agency over his own life and defying society.

The film’s fantastical central idea, however, is more show than substance. For most of a film that’s supposed to mock a racist character trope, it’s ironic that we don’t see much of these characters beyond their acting in this trope. Aren’s Blackness tellingly feels incidental though it’s central to the plot. His biracial identity is thrown out as a brief aside, when it seems like a prominent character detail to explore in a satire about proscribed racial roles.

The one-handed satirical approach of these films may, to some extent, come down to a failure of the writing. But there’s another factor at play — box office politics. The more obvious layer of satire, addressing white oppression and white guilt, seems aimed at white liberal audiences so they can feel in on the joke. Black audiences, on the other hand, are left with a simplified representation of their race that doesn’t dare be too controversial.

Daniel Kaluuya depicts a feeling of entrapment in the Sunken Place during Jordan Peele's 2017 film.
Daniel Kaluuya depicts a feeling of entrapment in the Sunken Place during Jordan Peele's 2017 film.

Just a few years ago Get Out and Sorry to Bother You each offered its own sharp satire about how whiteness may break down the Black psyche. While both films build their action around the absurd ways whiteness sabotages the protagonists on a societal level, they differ from the newer satires by representing, either metaphorically or literally, spaces of Black interiority or consciousness damaged by whiteness. In Get Out, it’s the bBack hero’s entrapment in the Sunken Place, which became one of the defining metaphors of its time. In Sorry to Bother You, the hero’s moment of truth arrives when he must choose whether to retain his identity and class status, or to continue using a racial performance to gain clout and success, to lose his humanity.

There is one recent exception to the recent spate of middling Black satirical films: Netflix’s They Cloned Tyrone. In the film, a drug dealer named Fontaine (John Boyega), a pimp named Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx) and a prostitute named Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris) discover a clandestine programme at work within their town. The Black residents are being cloned, experimented on and mind-controlled via rap music and stereotypically Black products like fried chicken and chemical relaxers.

But the satire works in both directions. The film cleverly makes the main three characters conscious of the stereotypes they portray. They question whether those roles serve them or serve the racist scheming happening around them. Fontaine eventually discovers that the big bad is the original Fontaine, who initiated the cloning process and is trying to whitewash Black people into white people a la another famous satire, Black No More. Through this twist, They Cloned Tyrone showcases how racism can subvert the minds of even the marginalised.

They Cloned Tyrone succeeds in its depiction of “authentic Blackness” in comparison with other recent satires. It’s not just about the way characters speak or the exaggerated depictions of their lives; it’s also about their internal conflicts, whether they choose to submit to a racist narrative and how much agency they have over their own narratives.

These satires, after all, come down to narratives: Beneath the commentary, the jokes and the ironies are meant to reveal what are, essentially, Black stories. But so many of these films fail to understand the central, perhaps the only, parameter of a “Black story”: that it be honest and complicated and, at the very least, inclusive of the people it depicts.

This article originally appeared in the New York Times.

Written by: Maya Phillips


Unlock this article and all our Viva Premium content by subscribing to 

Share this article: