Why It’s So Hard, But Necessary, to Watch “The Black Museum”
The controversial 'Black Mirror' season-four finale takes on our culture's obsession with Black torture porn, bringing it to a devastating catharsis.
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The first time I watched Black Mirror’s final episode of season four, entitled “Black Museum,” I couldn’t sit through the entire episode. I was horrified by the imagery and the implications it conjured. I felt unwilling to walk any further into the episode with eyes wide open, so to speak, because I knew what lay before me: heartbreak.
(Note: spoilers ahead)
By now it’s hard to believe that anyone who spends time on social media isn’t familiar with Black Mirror, a Twilight Zone–like sci-fi series on Netflix that mesmerizingly and skillfully recounts moralistic tales for the age. In this case, the show takes us into a wacky alternate universe set in the near future where the implications almost always point to some Skynet-type shit where technology ruins lives. Since its first season, Black Mirror sought to dissect and subvert curious societal themes and paradigms that have most certainly been shaped by how humans feed technology to achieve our greatest selves, but frequently end up doing quite the opposite—because humans are complex and strange and sinister therefore our creations will always reflect the complex and the strange and the sinister. Some episodes, while remaining profusely intense, somehow take a slightly more upbeat and even romantic vibe like Hang the DJ (from season four) and San Junipero (from season three, which remains my favorite episode to date). But one recurring theme that has reared its head in every season, despite being aggressively ignored by its viewership, is race.
Though it hasn’t been front and center, poignant castings have transcended many Black Mirror stories to take on more intense imagery and implications. Take season one’s “Fifteen Million Merits,” a story in which people have to pedal exercise bikes to create energy, and the currency is merits. In this episode about fame obsession, consumerism-to-feel-alive, and the exploitative nature of entertainment and womanhood, Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya stars as a man in love with a white woman, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, whom he tries to help, using his merits to gain her entry on a talent show. We see the dynamics of race, gender, and privilege as Findlay, so desperate for fame, signs on to a porn career, sacrificing her devastatingly mediocre life, even if she shares it with someone she loves. At first glance, season two’s “White Bear” appears to be a spin on a hyperviolence as entertainment through imagery drawn from the Purge film series and award-winning game series Hotline Miami. That is until viewers consider the protagonist Victoria (Lenora Crichlow), subjected to mental torture and physical violence because she was convicted of helping her boyfriend kidnap and murder a white child, is a Black woman. Those were only two of many episodes that followed these purposeful casting dynamics. But never had race been on such prominent display as season four’s “Black Museum,” by far the most-talked-about episode, perhaps only preceded by the incredibly well-executed thrill ride season opener, “USS Callister,” about an insecure CTO’s toxic male fantasy that backfires spectacularly. That was why I was determined to try again. This was an episode worth experiencing.
The story begins with a Black woman (Letitia Wright) named Nish driving down a Route 66-esque highway singing happily along to Motown. Already, I am unsettled. The image of an American driving down the lone highway looking for adventure has traditionally belonged to the white American cowboy. As a Black woman myself, seeing a young Black girl driving alone in the desert fills me with fear. Where is she going? Why isn’t anyone with her? What if someone tries to hang her? Rape her? I kept thinking to myself over and over, she should not be alone.
Nish eventually pulls over to charge her electric car and, while waiting for her refill, wanders along the abandoned gas station lot till she comes across an old rundown building with a sign on it: Black Museum. Again, my spidey senses scream: A Black woman in the middle of Only-White-People-With-Shotguns-Live-Around-Here, USA, is about to go to a place called BLACK museum? Chyyyyyyyylllllllee…nah! But a very particular thing happens that compels me to believe in Nish’s choice. As she reads the sign, Nish mutters out loud, “Mmmhm!” and she does so in a tone that is 100 percent Black womanspeak for There that motherfucker is, right over there. And while I don’t know yet who the motherfucker is, I know by that tone, that he is about to be in serious trouble.
It was at this moment that the entire story shifted for me. Nish had effectively communicated to Black women everywhere that she was not at this museum by happenstance. And as she is greeted by Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodges), a really sweaty white man in a tie who sounds like he’s doing his best drunk Jack Nicholson impression, I am again swept up by my every instinct that fears the Black Museum is going to be a display of Black pain.
From schoolyard fights uploaded to World Star, the countless photos of massacred African bodies strewn across mass graves to the sickening viral-ability of smartphone cams capturing American police brutality, Black pain is social media’s favorite porn. Viewers almost seem addicted to the madness as countless fingers rush to type their favorite go-to whether it be “omg divisive!” or #ALLLIVESMATTER. Consider the bankability of the Black folks like Antoine Dodson, who became a comedic sensation for his “colorful” defense of his sister from a rapist. Black folks like Andrew Caldwell, who earned thousands of followers for his almost desperate insistence that he had indeed prayed the gay away. All of them shoved on a stage built on their own pain and suffering and made a spectacle for our own entertainment.
The Black Museum itself is marketed by Rolo Haynes as a spectacle of pain. Of every object on display, he says, “Authentic criminological artifacts. If it did something bad, chances are it’s in here.” From there we’re launched into a Tales From the Hood–esque plotline, where the slightly distrustful patron hesitantly asks the obviously evil keeper about the increasingly strange artifacts and he in return would launch into its gruesome origins, each detail escalating the already dire-dire details. The first story involved a doctor who Rolo recruited to try a contraption that allowed him to feel what his patients felt, but a stroke of death short-circuited the chip in his brain and caused him to take pain and fear as pleasure, effectively causing him to exploit pain.
The second story involved an interracial couple, who after a terrible accident, transfer the White wife’s consciousness from her comatose body into her husband’s brain thus allowing her to live inside of him, as a dual-conscious being, so to speak. At first, the couple seems happy, as they are able to continue on with their lives, raising their child. But then the husband finds a girlfriend, and, well, eventually three becomes a crowd. Now, the wife’s consciousness lives within a monkey doll, which can only say two things: “Monkey loves you!,” when the doll is happy, and “Monkey needs a hug,” when it’s sad. As Nish holds the monkey, it tells her, “Monkey needs a hug.” Pain.
Rolo introduces Nish to his grand finale. The hologram projection of the soul of a Black inmate who received the death penalty for a murder he did not commit. There, viewers watch the two themes of pleasure and pain intersect. It turns out that Rolo tricked a desperate inmate into giving him his posthumous consciousness in order to provide for his family after he was gone. Now his being is projected through Rolo’s tech, and forced to die by electric chair over and over while patrons attend and giddily get to pull the lever themselves. And for their participation, they receive a keychain, depicting the inmate in pain.
For many viewers, this was the darkest hour. For me, it was cathartic for a plethora of reasons. Being Black in America often means having to be strong enough and confident to believe in our own minds. We spend an upsetting amount of time questioning ourselves, wishing to find any other reason than racism to explain every inappropriate joke, belittling comment, and devastating experience we encounter because of our existence and the times we do not question ourselves, we are interrogated by others who have all been unconditionally conditioned to dismiss Black opinion. Now Black Mirror was reflecting this back upon the screen. White folks, non-Black people of color, all of them pulling the lever and smiling with glee, deriving their pleasure from so much Black pain.
Even as Rolo falls to the ground in the final twist and Nish reveals that she has poisoned him and plans to exact revenge on him for what he’d done to her father, the inmate. I neither felt surprised nor blindsided. I remembered her affirmation from before, mmhm! That is not a phrase Black women use lightly.
As the story wraps, viewers find out for whom the mmhm! is intended: her mother, who after finding out the fate of her husband killed herself in grief, and whose consciousness now resides in Nish’s head. Nish leaves happily with her mother in her head, the stuffed monkey chirping, “Monkey loves you!” by her side, and a keychain of Rolo’s pain. Encapsulated for eternity and dangling from her rearview mirror, his pain on display for her pleasure forevermore.
I didn’t want to take satisfaction from “Black Museum”’s ending. I wish I could say that I derive no pleasure from pain, but I am human and Rolo was a motherfucker indeed. He was that motherfucker, some ol’ obnoxious and arrogant white man, who may have not directly put Nish’s father in prison but happily exploited the destruction of her entire family in the glorious name of business. He was also the motherfucker, the generic face of an oppressor that amassed fortune and power at the expense of humanity, and Nish becomes the prodigal daughter who returns to settle the score for all of us, who like Nish, are bound to the anger and the resentment and all the pain-pain-and-more-pain that we’ve inherited from my ancestors. And in a country that believes in the cowboy, we are taught to value power that comes at the expense of others.
Nish effectively takes her power when she burns down the Black Museum and rides off into the sunset with Monkey Loves You! and her Supremes-loving mother? Or is she bound to eventually come down from the high and still find herself an orphan, beholden to the ghost of her angry and grieving mother as well as a new passenger, a white woman abandoned by her Black husband, trapped in a monkey doll? Or is it that women all make the best of their situations whenever they can, savoring the small and maybe even the petty victories along the way?
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