Film

Black Mirror‘s “Black Museum” Episode Is a Revenge Fantasy That Comes Up Short

In this popular episode, we’re presented with a symbolic reckoning against a system that remains unscathed.

A scene from the Black Museum episode (Season 4) of the popular dystopian tv serial Black Mirror (images courtesy Black Mirror)

Getting revenge, or its close second cousin, the revenge fantasy, for most everyone whose ever been wronged (but especially for those who continue to be wronged) is delectable. The wish can even be restorative — affirming the notion that the universe somehow cares about balancing the scales of justice for human beings, or that a supreme being cares for us and intervenes on our small-bore causes.

Black Mirror, that at times staggeringly brilliant, very often harrowing narrative window into a future which is a slightly — only slightly — distorted view of our contemporary culture gives us a version of the comeuppance tale in “Black Museum,” the last episode in the recently released fourth season. There is a bevy of public opinions offered about it on several social media platforms; however, to write this piece I sampled Twitter under the hashtag #BlackMuseum because that site seems the most responsive to its broadcast on Netflix.

The logo of the Black Museum

The majority of opinions given there range around the state of awe. For example, many are variations of the comment given by Rachael Brandon‏ @theycallmecarmn: “Damn, #BlackMuseum @blackmirror was savage AF!” Other commenters praised the “sick genius” of Charlie Brooker, the creator and writer of the series. A convincing reason for this praise was cited by Christopher Quatroche: “for making me question the fundamental nature of the ‘self’ on a Saturday night.”

Some were so shaken they couldn’t finish the episode. Alternatively, some made the fundamental errors of either confusing depiction with validation, or insisting that stories about the privations inflicted on black people only belong to black people and therefore dismissed the story as racist. (These comments have skittered back into the ether the third time I checked the feed.) One of the most compelling takes for me was from @jowaynejosephs who loved the idea of a “carefree happy black girl driving down the highway in her classic car … to tear down the patriarchy.”

Nish speaking to Rolo Haynes, who owns the Black Museum

It was energizing for me watching the main character “Nish” (played by Letitia Wright) avenge [spoiler alert] the torture of her father and destroy an institution which is called a museum, but actually more resembles a theme park given that neither research, nor care of the objects, the education of the visitor, or the creation of meaning are a focus.

The institution is largely a for-profit venture that looks to entertain audience with the degradation and agony of a black man. (I’m not going to do much plot summary here since this article is written for those who have seen the episode or are more interested in the ideas generated by it than the production itself.) It’s about time that we started making stories in which our heroes are women of color, and about time that they be seen as the authors of new, innovative strategies in the ongoing struggle against white patriarchy. Even seated within a revenge narrative (which perforce presumes a kind of victimization) the story momentarily rights the scales.

All of this is good.

I only wonder this: the episode treats the “museum” (run by Rolo Haynes, who is played by Douglas Hodge) as essentially a stand in for the larger systemic mechanisms for taking pleasure in the destruction of black men, and by extension all black people, and in the financial profiteering from such entertainment. Hari Ziyad, writing for Black Youth Project, is right in pointing out that “’Black Museum’ [is] the slave revolt fantasy Hollywood never intended to make.” It shows us in triumph. But the emotional release relies on a kind of synecdoche in which one man, Haynes, and one institution, the Black Museum, represent an entire system. This symbolism is precisely why several articles written in response to the episode take the reader by the hand through the history of the historical subjugation of black people, drawing together a portrait of actions from the Tuskegee experiments through to Erica Garner, to demonstrate there has been a system wide mobilization of legal, juridical, social, religious, and financial instruments by those who are ethnically white to reduce those who are ethnically and politically black to the sign of their skin color. And US Americans, (and in fairness, most people I’ve encountered from elsewhere) have a very difficult time accepting and wrapping their heads around critiques of systemic violence, oppression. We want to blame someone or something, when typically the system that sustains the individual act of abuse is more complex than the anecdotal instance.

A scene from the Black Museum episode

For now, in this episode, it is emotionally sufficient for many of us to watch one woman triumph in the name of the tribe, to employ the technological tools in more sophisticated ways than her father’s tormentor, to right the scales of justice, to free someone who likely never should have been incarcerated in the first place, to give the torturer his due, to redefine heroism. But intellectually I don’t take much comfort here. I don’t because this means we still hone in on the instance, the person, the event, and not the system. Ziyad writes “maybe burning down one man, one prison, one museum each is enough.” I don’t think it is — not now. Our thinking needs to become much more sophisticated to grasp the tools we need to dismantle the white supremacist patriarchy. In the US alone, the Institute of Museum and Library Services estimates there are 35,000 museums, which ignores all the international institutions that influence us as well. If we imagine that obliterating them, or changing them one at a time will get us anywhere, we are in for a long winter which several of us won’t survive.

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