On HBO, there was “Lovecraft Country,” a fantasy series that premiered in August and roves the 1950s-era United States along with the Korean War, outer space and an assortment of moments in the distant past. Recently, “Them” arrived on Amazon and gleefully turns ’50s racial integration into a horror series set in a white suburb. At least two movies were made about government agencies harassing — and, in Fred Hampton’s case, shooting to death as he slept — prominent Black Americans. Before these were movies like “The Hate U Give,” about a teenager drawn to protest after the police gun down her friend; and “Queen & Slim,” in which two cop-killers go on the lam and somehow fall in love. That’s for starters.
Some of this work can be as lyrical as Lee’s. Yet despite its reliance upon metaphor and genre, it feels predicated upon a kind of moral literalism — or perhaps simply obviousness. The pervasion of racism oppresses the characters, the plots and maybe even us. That, of course, is how racism operates. But here it leaves no room for ideas or personalities to declare themselves. The sense of doom is totalizing and deadening. Characters can’t meaningfully connect or think without the intrusion of ghosts, monsters or the F.B.I.
This isn’t to say that there’s no way to imagine wedding American crisis and magic realism. A couple of years ago, “Watchmen” fused the fight against white supremacy with superhero myths. The conflation never felt gratuitous because its makers seemed to deeply understand what they were up to and took their time fully revealing that to us. Too often, the crisis invites opportunism.
In the 1970s, as Black nationalism became the dominant Black political mode, something amazing happened to American movies. They got Blacker. Before 1968, there had basically been Sidney Poitier changing the country on his own; then a galaxy of other faces materialized alongside his. But pretty swiftly, it became clear — courtesy of both gems and dross — that criminality, heroic and otherwise, would preoccupy most of these movies, many of them made by Black men. “Blaxploitation” they called it, in part for its nearsightedness.
A similar monomania is back for this latest boom in Black screen expression. The crime now is discrimination deployed in order to make the past at home in the present and the present indistinguishable from the past. Continuums bend into loops. The characters feel largely like victims. And the work can feel as exploitative of an audience’s hunger to watch itself as the ’70s stuff — but without the humor, haywire electricity or invigorating loucheness. (Boy, do you do miss those now.) Here, too, are pandering and cut corners; here is leaning on genre presets that render atrocity redundant.
Some of this work is trying to capture the surrealism of racism that Jordan Peele invented for “Get Out.” But while that movie introduced to popular culture a critique of white covetousness of Black personhood, it was also about the fear of the loss of oneself, about the plunge into a “sunken place” that results in racial lobotomy. The scares are external. More crucially, they’re existential.