Robeson Taj Frazier was uneasy when he started seeing ads for Amazon's "Them," about a Black family in the 1950s being terrorized by hostile white neighbors and supernatural forces.
The USC professor, who is the director of the Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at USC's Annenberg School of Communication, feared that the drama would contain disturbing images of violence and brutality toward Black people, echoing scenes in HBO's "Watchmen" and "Lovecraft Country" and other recent projects that mashed up the troubled history of racial turmoil in America with genre elements.
His concerns were underscored when a social media uproar erupted soon after the show's premiere earlier this month. Numerous Black viewers were outraged over its depictions of vicious racist violence, including the murder of a Black infant while his mother is being raped and a scene showing a Black couple being blinded with hot pokers and then burned to death.
In particular, these viewers — and professional critics — have denounced the series for exploiting Black trauma for profit: "It's racial horror porn," one wrote, "[and] I'm done supporting any of it."
Said Frazier: "I can certainly understand the negative reaction, and why viewers found the violence a bit excessive. Have we seen this kind of terrorization of other races on TV? People recognize there is a need and necessity to tell difficult stories, to interrogate the sickness of this infrastructure of white supremacy. But people are also asking, 'at what cost?'"
The Oscar-nominated live-action short "Two Distant Strangers," which premiered on Netflix the same day "Them" arrived on Amazon Prime Video, has raised similar questions with its story ofa young Black man trapped in a "Groundhog Day"-style cycle with a white cop who delights in killing him over and over again.
The growing furor around "Them," "Two Distant Strangers" and other Hollywood projects containing horrific images of mayhem, maiming and murder directed at Black people has given new life to the debate over what many have characterized as "black trauma porn," where the brutalization of Black bodies is presented as entertainment.
The artists behind these projects have countered charges that the scenarios are gratuitous by saying the pain of racism should not be sugarcoated.
Travon Free, the writer and co-director of "Two Distant Strangers," said at a filmmaker panel recently: "There's no way to avoid the fact that the reality of being Black is often painful and often traumatic." "Them" creator and executive producer Little Marvin has said his admittedly upsetting images are designed to convey the savagery of racism.
Critics maintain that, while they respect the right of the writers, directors and producers to make strong artistic statements about race and racism, the ferocity of some of these images is more triggering than impactful. The images are particularly unsettling given the country's real-life reckoning with police brutality against unarmed Black men, a divisive presidential election and the resurgence of white supremacist groups.