For most sci-fi, black people don’t exist.
Take a look at the multiplex. Galaxies far, far away are usually populated by white people, and if there are any black people in space, they exist in some odd post-racial society that seems to have conveniently forgotten the racial difficulties of the modern world. Which isn’t to say sci-fi isn’t often about race—many times racial disparities in our current society are used as allegories in sci-fi. It’s why films like Netflix’s Bright create a world where orcs are treated racially as non-white and somehow, the racist attitudes toward non-white people in this world are non-existent.
It’s a wonder then how within the same month, Netflix managed to release two pieces of science fiction that are as diametrically opposed to one another as Bright and the Black Mirror episode “Black Museum.” The former is a bloated $90 million film that uses allegorical racism to tell an overdone story about how mean humans can be to others, but “Black Museum” dismantles exactly how childish and cliché that approach is by delivering one of the best science fiction stories about racism and the black experience since Get Out. It uses the cultural aesthetic of Afrofuturism to combine elements of sci-fi, horror, and a blistering critique of the present black experience while also excavating our past.
The problem with most science fiction that uses race as an allegory is how it reduces racism to hatred based on emotion and circumstance. Human beings hate aliens, orcs, vampires or whatever else because they’re different than them. It ignores the sinister ways that racism has entrenched our legal and political system. “Black Museum” tackles that and much more, using the American curiosity framework—a roadside museum—to tell its story.
It draws to mind the Americana that Suzan-Lori Parks invokes in her plays and its echoes of white nationalism, clinging to American nostalgia where black people were sideshows. The titular museum is run by Rolo Haynes, who much like a modern-day P.T. Barnum purchases black bodies for his own monetary gain and the cruel amusement of his patrons. Barnum historically purchased Joice Heth, a black slave who he falsely claimed was the 161-year-old “mammy” of George Washington. He made money off exhibiting her, then after her death, charged people to watch a surgeon dissect her publicly.
That wicked tradition of buying and selling black bodies is one that America attempts to scrub from its past while simultaneously erecting monuments of Confederate soldiers to strike fear into the souls of the victims who still remember the bloodshed. And what is the Black Museum but a curiosity shop of horrors meant to inflict emotional pain on visitors like Nish? Whereas last year’s Get Out took the chattel of black bodies to the satirical conclusion of white people literally possessing them, “Black Museum” uses its sci-fi slant to highlight a much more realistic method of au courant abuses.
Inside the museum, Rolo hosts the hologram of Clayton Leigh, a black man falsely convicted of murder. Rolo convinced Clayton to sign over his post-death consciousness to him and after Clayton’s execution, Rolo created an exhibit where visitors could pull a lever and make Clayton experience the pain of the electric chair all over again. When the exhibit’s popularity waned, Rolo stooped to selling lever pulls to sadists and racists who wanted to torture Clayton for pleasure. In replicating Clayton’s pain for the enjoyment of museum visitors, “Black Museum” not only casts light on how our media consumption revels in the exploitation of black pain but also how the criminal justice system subjects black men to the whims of the highest bidder.
Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has always been about human addiction to technology, telling stories that mine horror from such modern-day minutiae as social-media rankings, virtual-reality games, invasion of privacy and online harassment. However, more often than not, the characters that exist within Black Mirror episodes are white. After viewing last season’s “Nosedive,” I wrote about how this often clashed with how humans actually use technology. According to Nielsen, 41 percent of black millennials are more likely than those of other races to try new technology. Forty-eight percent of online black users use Instagram, 28 percent use Twitter, and 67 percent use Facebook. The growth of black social media users is undeniable, so much so that many corporations now coordinate with black celebrities to drive usage. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, engages with black activists like DeRay McKesson and monitors the hashtags black users create to drive conversation on the platform.
One thing the march of technological advancement has shown is that black millenials are constantly making creative advances on social media platforms, but see little of those profits. You don’t need to delve into science fiction to see how white people with money and influence are able to exploit black thoughts and experiences for their personal gain. It’s taken four seasons, but “Black Museum” shows that when science fiction deals with actual humans—sans superfluous allegories—and the pain we inflict on one another in our modern society, there’s a wealth of stories to be told.