On Logan and the Death of Black People in Films
Here there be spoilers.
I finally saw Logan last night.
It was a brutally violent film. You got to see characters who’d been defined by their strengths as weak, a weakness that compounded their issues as people. You got to see the vulnerability of characters whose superhero personas erased the day-to0day minutia of being a human being. It was a stark reminder that our legends, our larger than life heroes are really people whose stories have been condensed into bullshit for others to admire. Logan reminds us that people are complicated and fucked up, and sometimes we don’t even know why.
Overall I enjoyed the movie except for one deeply hurtful thing – the casual anti-Blackness of the movie. There were four Black people with speaking roles in the movie. Three of them are brutally murdered, closeups given of their maimed bodies as they were left dead for giving hospitality to strangers. I knew not to get too attached to them. I knew that any character connected to Logan, Professor X, and X-23 was dangerous, but there was a small hope that maybe they’d get away, mostly unscathed.
It was the common lie I tell myself when Black people are in movies. And it is almost always proven a lie.
I got to watch this kind family become victims of their kindness. We saw they had their struggles – maintaining a farm in an area that had been bought out by corporate interests. They had a cute son who was willing to drop out of school to travel the country with his parents. People who were willing to open their home to strangers in need. I wanted to like them. I wanted to see people I’d grown up living next to in them. And I knew that I couldn’t let myself care because they were going to be killed.
I had to forcefully distance myself from my love of Black people because I knew that I was going to see them killed.
I’m not going to lie, I am very tired of having to say “Representation Matters.” I’m tired of hearing the phrase and I’m tired of the constant need to remind people that representation is much more than having Black people in a movie. It’s about the roles we play, the characterizations we see, the lives we have portrayed on-screen. It’s about seeing people who look like us, our friends, our families living lives on screen and not getting murdered to move a plot forward every time. It’s about seeing Black joy and Black love and Black humanity in a way that is owned by the characters instead of exploited by the white protagonist in their quest. It’s about being able to see Black people on screen without having to watch them criminalized, sacrificed, or slaughtered because they needed a plot device and it’s cool to make it the Black person.
I remember the first time it really hit home for me…that was Terminator 2: Judgement Day (T2). I saw that movie in the theater with my dad – he’s the one who introduced me to sci-fi. In the movie, the creator of Skynet was played by Joe Morton, currently known as Olivia Pope’s father, Eli, in Shonda Rimes TV show Scandal. Back then, he played Dr. Miles Bennet Dyson, the creator of the end of humanity. As you can see, we’re already off to a bad start. Except his character was kind. Curious. An explorer. He wanted to change the world and had no idea that the AI he developed using technology from the first Terminator would be ultimately responsible for humanity’s war against machines. He had a family. They were all super likable people and he reminded me of my dad. I felt myself connect to this character who reminded me of the wonderful man sitting next to me in the theater and then I got to watch him die.
It wasn’t an easy death. In many ways, my father’s actual death mirrored it. And while Terminator 2 was just a movie, I got to experience the loss of someone I connected with on a basic level. Even though the connection wasn’t real, it still felt real because that’s how the human brain works – when we see things, they become memories for us, virtually indistinguishable from our actual memories. And that’s why when we watch Black people die again and again in television shows in movies, we learn to distance ourselves from their humanity. We learn to see that violence as not real violence and then when real violence occurs, we’re numb because that’s how we’ve taught ourselves to survive the visual representations of the casual brutality enacted on Black people. We learn to close our eyes, mute the pain, and keep trying to live.
And every time we leave a piece of our empathy behind because living in that pain is living in pain. Constantly. And I can’t keep moving forward with my heart in a never-ending ache. I don’t know many people who can.
My options are to hurt or to numb; I’m tired of hurting and I need to feel so I can care.
I still get emotional when I think of that movie. And as awesome as the special effects are in T2, effects still used to this day, I cannot watch that scene again, especially now that my father is gone. It creates an ache and a longing that paralyzes me and now is not the time to be still. But it’s real. And I know I am not alone in feeling this.
In some ways, that’s great writing and it wouldn’t be so bad if there were so many representations of Black people on the screen to choose from, but there aren’t. There are tropes, clichés, and stereotypes. In T2, Joe Morton’s character was the sacrificial Negro, the Black man who gives his life for the white protagonist, something that’s been seen in productions like The Core, The Walking Dead, The Green Mile, and most recently, Logan.
I don’t want to see Black people die in these white narratives anymore. I don’t want to see people who look like me be destroyed over and over and over again. People have talked about the trauma of seeing Black people murdered by police in the news – just because it’s “only a movie” doesn’t make it less traumatic because that’s how our brain works. The more we see certain types of images, the better we remember them. Seeing repeated images of Black people being killed, real or fabricated, are stored in our memories and we can’t tell the difference.
Because that is how our brains work and I do not want to be indifferent to the death of Black people. I don’t want to be indifferent to the loss of people who look like me. Ever.