Films About Black Oppression Are Becoming Harder For Me to Stomach
Photo: Andre D. Wagner / Orion Pictures

Films About Black Oppression Are Becoming Harder For Me to Stomach

Movies like ‘Emancipation’ and ‘Till’ are important for keeping America honest, but entertainment that depicts our struggle is tiring

On Monday, AppleTV+ dropped the trailer for Emancipation, a Will Smith-led vehicle that was considered a major 2023 Oscar contender prior to the fallout of the actor slapping Chris Rock during the Oscars in March.

The film, directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by William N. Collage, features Smith as Peter, a real-life figure from the 1800s who “embarks on a perilous journey to reunite with his family,” escaping slavery and fighting for the Union army.

“This was the hardest movie I’ve ever made,” Smith wrote on an Instagram post featuring the trailer. “Blood, Sweat & Tears… LITERALLY! Shoutout to Apple who doubled (and tripled) down on their commitment to deliver this epic story to the world.”

Emancipation will hit theaters in limited release on Dec. 2 before it begins streaming on Apple TV+ one week later, meaning both the film and Smith will be eligible for Oscar nominations during the next awards cycle. (There was reportedly some internal debate at Apple about whether to release the film this year as originally intended.)

As you might’ve noticed, lots of hypocritical white folks who dominate Hollywood (and rich Blacks like Wanda Sykes) continue to take umbrage over Smith’s actions at this year’s Oscars—prompting speculation as to whether Smith, who is banned from the Oscars for the next 10 years but remains eligible for nominations, will be blacklisted.

I, however, wonder more about whether some of Smith’s core supporters—i.e. us Black folks—will tune out the movie for an entirely different reason. Under Smith’s very own post, someone left the comment: “Another slave movie!! Please enough."

There are more than 100 responses to that sentiment, but it is one mirrored elsewhere across social media, as well as in my inbox, from folks who feel the same way but dare not say so on a public forum. Even some Academy voters—those who would dictate Smith’s chances for another Oscar nod—are complaining about being exhausted with the film’s subject matter.

As one unnamed Oscar voter told The Hollywood Reporter: “I have no reaction to the Apple film getting released—frankly, I’m getting tired of the slave theme for now. But yes, I would consider voting for him if he is great in something."

It is hard to argue with Black folks who say they are tired of watching us be brutalized as entertainment again and again when we have to contend with that reality every day of our lives.

As big a fan of Smith’s as I am, I’m typically weary of his films that involve him using an accent. I do plan to see Emancipation, though, but largely because I’m tired of people in Hollywood acting like Will Smith is the worst person in the world—especially when the industry routinely awards and celebrates a number of far worse (known) abusers. My plan to see it is driven by spite; not exactly the best motivation, I know, but my stream will count.

That’s why as much as I disagree with the notion that films about slavery or other forms of discrimination and brutalization are too prevalent, I can at least acknowledge that it’s becoming increasingly harder for me to seek out films focused on our subjugation and exploitation, too.

It’s one of the reasons why, much like Emancipation, I'm not overly eager to see Till upon its Oct. 14 release, despite wanting it to perform well. Till tells the story of Emmett Till's tragic murder, and how his mother, Mamie Till, fought for justice. When the trailer was released on July 25—what would’ve been Emmett’s 81st birthday—much of the social media chatter around it echoed the reactions to Emancipation this week: complaining about being tired of narratives that perpetuate Black trauma.

However, at a press conference in July, Till director Chinonye Chukwu said that in actuality, Mamie and her work as an activist anchor the movie. “I knew that the way that I needed to tell this story was through the emotional journey of Mamie,” Chukwu said at a press conference for Till in July. “We’ve got to keep it focused on Mamie and her relationship with Emmett."

This is echoed by Deborah Watts, co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation and a Till family member, who said the film is the story of Mamie Till Mobley’s love for her son and how that love powered her fight for truth and justice.

“Seeing this film made is yet another milestone for our family, and a testament to Mamie’s fight for justice and to our commitment to legacy,” Watts said in a statement. “The power of history turning tragedy into triumph is something Mamie would have wanted all of us to do.”

For all the complaints about what some feel the movie represents, it ought to matter that it has the support of the Till family. Meanwhile, as writers like Keisha N. Blain argued at the time of the trailer’s release: “For as long as racism and white supremacist violence operate as powerful forces in the U.S., and they obviously do, we will need films such as Till so we don’t lose sight of where we have been, where we are and where we need to go.”

Blain is correct in why movies like Till are not only worthy of being made, but vital with respect to, in essence, keeping America honest.

I plan to see Till, albeit largely out of obligation. But ultimately, I hope each film’s success will not totally lay at the feet of Black people. After all, many of us already know where we have been, where we are, and where we need to go—and now more than ever, that can feel exhausting. That is not to disparage those films and those behind them. It’s simply to say many of us are simply tired and want escapism like anyone else.

Both Till and Emancipation look like important movies, so I disagree with the critique that films like these perpetuate Black trauma and should be avoided. Even so, it is hard to argue with Black folks who say they are tired of watching us be brutalized as entertainment again and again when we have to contend with that reality every day of our lives.

Michael Arceneaux is the New York Times bestselling author of I Can't Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I've Put My Faith in Beyoncé, I Don't Want To Die Poor, and the forthcoming I Finally Bought Some Jordan's.