Thoughts Not Lists: Let’s Reflect In Lieu Of Performance
Updated: Aug 2, 2020
By: Zach Morgenstern
In the days following the murder of George Floyd, there’s been an explosion of discourse on liberal and leftist social media. For a time, people flooded their accounts with plain black squares. This gesture faced blowback: critics argued that it spared half-hearted allies from having meaningfully speak out against racism.
One way that people have tried to go beyond the square is by sharing lists: lists of black-owned businesses to support, lists of black theorists to read, etc. Lists like these are certainly a social good, but their power has limits. The “support black business” lists feel like a particularly symbolic gesture. Market forces such as rising rents and monopoly competition make it hard to believe that a bunch of well-meaning progressives can empower black communities by slightly adjusting their consumer habits.
The best arguments for lists is that even if they fail in their short-term practical goals, they nonetheless serve a spiritual function. They help us build consciousness of solidarity: minds shaped for the better world we hope to one day build. This is a goal worth getting behind, but it is not well-served by the Instagram-list. When someone posts a bibliography in their Instagram story, telling their followers to read treatises by James Baldwin, Audre Lord and Angela Davis, can you imagine that many will comply? Furthermore, lists come across as dense homework assignments: as expectations thrust upon the viewer from a scolding sharer. This form of communication does not build bonds of solidarity or encourage ideas to grow. If anything, it fuels the perception that the list-sharer itself is insincere: that they are “virtue signalling" rather than spreading the word based on deep heartfelt convictions.
As a film writer, I could create a list of my own, but I won’t. Instead, I would like to speak briefly to my affection for two movies: The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Sorry to Bother You. Both are films you could conceivably see on an Instagram list of “10 BLACK-CENTRIC FILMS YOU MUST WATCH RIGHT NOW!” Both are also films I would recommend to you regardless of the political moment.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is based on the true story of its star and co-writer Jimmy Fails. The first thing we learn about Jimmy is that he cares deeply for one of San Francisco’s iconic “painted-lady” houses, going so far as to work on its upkeep. The next thing we learn about Jimmy is that the house isn’t his, and that the white couple who own it aren’t too happy about his presence. Jimmy’s story resonated with me from the get go. The commodification of housing comes at the expense of those of us who see our cities as homes and works of art: not trendy properties to be sold to the highest bidder. That Jimmy deals with this pain in a way that is both eccentric and within the confines of reality, only makes his story resonate further. The Last Black Man in San Francisco, in short, is a great film as it speaks to a real issue through a real person: not a stock, un-nuanced protagonist.
Sorry to Bother You, meanwhile, is really the kind of film you should go into knowing as little about as possible. Rife with bizarro twists, the film starts electrically with a parody of a job interview, before jumping from one unexpected destination to the next. Its two strongest qualities are 1) that despite being a “political” rather than a “genre” film it does an incredible job of world-building and 2) its unique political thesis that our world is truly absurd, but it may need even more absurdity for us to stand up and notice.
Both The Last Black Man and Sorry to Bother You are films that can build one’s anti-racist consciousness. The former does so by explicitly focusing on the question of gentrification, and the latter does so by showing how anti-blackness is insidiously packed into capitalist power structures. It is important that our pop-culture contain this content, but its also worth thinking about how this content is conveyed. I don’t recommend The Last Black Man in San Francisco because it fills the “gentrification is bad” niche on my “woke” list. Rather, I recommend it because of my affection for the character of Jimmy, and because I believe Jimmy’s story has the power to reach people on both a political and an artistic level.
We live in an age of performative allyship. George W. Bush, echoing a popular phrase, has stated that “it’s time to listen,” to the needs of the black community. Change, however, does not come from people who passively listen, but from those who sincerely engage with society’s tensions. If George Bush is so convinced he has an anti-racist world-view, why does he feel compelled to listen rather than trust himself to speak his mind? And on a similar note, how many of the white liberals who tweeted about how it was a travesty that BlacKkKlansman lost the 2018 Best Picture Oscar to Green Book, bothered to see and/or engaged with the political imagination of Sorry to Bother You (a film far more in line with the zeitgeist of 2020 than BlacKkKlansman would prove to be)?
There’s only so much we can do with our words, but so long as we speak out, let it be out of passion and genuine reflection. Black squares are empty voids. Encyclopedic lists can feel equally cold. A heartfelt and substantive conversation, however, can build bonds between comrades and bridges between adversaries. I hope you accept my sincere film recommendations, and I look forward to hearing about how they resonate with you.