Black Mirror’s “Black Museum”: The slave revolt fantasy Hollywood never intended to make?
“Black Museum” takes place sometime in the near future, not in the antebellum past, but I insist that its subject is slavery and rebellion n
Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers of Black Mirror S4, E6, “Black Museum”
I do not trust myself when I enjoy a tale of Black people experiencing unbearably violent situations on screen. Perhaps I have read too much of Frank Wilderson’s Afro-pessimist film critique Red, White and Black, but I am never quite sure whether I am reacting to years of being conditioned to relish Black suffering, or to an actual feeling of empowerment that comes with witnessing these Black characters claim triumphs—or at least witnessing them persevere—through it all.
My response is especially untrustworthy when it comes to slave narratives, and so I have taken efforts to avoid them. The last one I saw was 2016’s Nat Turner “biopic,” The Birth of a Nation, directed by accused sexual abuser Nate Parker. Despite my personal disdain for Parker and the film’s blatant misrepresentation of women and history itself, something in me swelled as I watched, perhaps for the first time, a seemingly unfiltered recreation of slaves rising up against their tormentors, sparing not even the women and children who enslaved them.
My first inclination was to call this unapologetic embrace of Black retaliation “powerful,” but it only took until the end of the film for me to understand this “power” was not in the service of my freedom. Like Django Unchained before it, The Birth of a Nation was not meant to be the sorely needed indictment of the pervasive liberal disregard for the morality of Black retaliatory violence. Django was ultimately a white savior fantasy, and if Birth of a Nation’s gender politics did not erase its liberatory possibilities, the absurd way it positioned the Civil War—a conflict fought ultimately to keep the imperialist anti-Black nation together—as a continuation of slave resurrection legacies was proof enough that the film was little more than liberal propaganda.
So I don’t know if you should believe me when I say the last episode in season four of Netflix’s Black Mirror, “Black Museum,” succeeds where these two films fail. One might say this is not a fair comparison. “Black Museum” takes place sometime in the near future, not in the antebellum past, but I insist that its subject is slavery and rebellion nonetheless. And perhaps in reading it as a slave revolt fantasy, rather than the sci-fi cautionary tale its white writer Charlie Brooker and director Colm McCarthy probably intended, is where one can mine this story for gems that are actually useful for Black people fighting for their freedom today.
I’ve read a few reviews calling Rolo Haynes, the museum guide played by Douglas Hodge, “the main character” of “Black Museum,” but these are undoubtedly written by white writers who are unable to center Black characters even if it is already done for them. The protagonist is obviously Letitia Wright’s Nish, a young Black woman who decides to take a tour of the titular museum while her car recharges.
Like the series’ less interesting special from season two, “White Christmas” (it should be noted that many of the same aforementioned reviewers called that notably less Black episode “better”), “Black Museum” is made up of three gruesome stories within a larger story, each dealing with Haynes’ experiences as a scientist working to transfer the consciousness from one subject to another. Haynes narrates these tales to a curious Nish, whose pointed questioning occasionally betrays a deeper, not yet revealed motive.
The episode culminates with the story of Clayton Leigh (Babs Olusanmokun), a Black man and convicted murderer whom Haynes has convinced to sign over the rights to his post-death consciousness in exchange for money for his family. Once Leigh is executed, Haynes uploads the convict’s consciousness to a still-imprisoned hologram, allowing sadistic visitors to replay the moment of his execution over and over again, even sending them home with souvenirs documenting the moment of digital Leigh’s death that repeats endlessly.
Haynes justifies this torture by explaining that Leigh was definitely guilty, which is why he never sought to use DNA testing to try and prove Leigh’s innocence even though he had the means, claiming that not even his family came to see him after he was convicted. But Nish knows this isn’t true. At the end of the episode, she reveals herself to be Leigh’s daughter, and she had poisoned Haynes when she first entered the museum in order to exact revenge. When Hodges collapses, Nish uploads his own consciousness and traps it in her father’s digital body before mercy killing them both, but not before taking a souvenir of Haynes trapped in his own moment of death.
There are obvious references to “modern-day” racial dynamics in the episode, but those aren’t what interest me. In fact, Nish’s monologue about “supremacists” finding the most joy in torturing her father (overusing the execution device to the point that digital Leigh was turned into a vegetable and was no longer fun to torment) and of how “activists” got tired of protesting for him are some of the weakest moments in “Black Museum.” I’m more interested in the timeless experiences of slave-master dynamics that are, likely unintentionally, illuminated here, and the agency given to Nish, an “angry” young Black woman, to disrupt them.
Jared Sexton argues that “the Black, whether slave or ‘free,’ lives under the commandment of whites.” Reframing Blackness along this relational dynamic allows us to reinterpret what is meant by the claim that slavery has ended, and to acknowledge how the various forms of a parallel white domination still exist today.
Leigh’s inescapable torment is undoubtedly an experience of slavery, and, despite its cinematic licenses, it draws one of the clearest connections to the inescapable torment of Black death predictably circulating the media following every highly publicized Black death (a kind of porn industry one can validly argue Black Mirror itself often partakes in; see this season’s “Crocodile”).
As Nish’s tears and rage welled up at the sight of “a souvenir” of her father’s death, I couldn’t help but think of the many times Michael Brown’s family pleaded with the community to stop sharing images of his dead body, and how those souvenirs flooded the internet anyway.
So when Nish responds with her own ruthlessness, this is a revolt too. This is the killing of a slavemaster. It is a “fuck you” to the relentless idea that Black folks have never shown up aggressively enough for the people they love, or the people who love them. It reminds us that just because they might not all look the way that we expect, uprisings have been happening since they first forced us into chains. And it is all done by a Black woman who believed her Black father when the whole world said he was a monster who should be disposed. A Black woman who keeps her own mother inside her head (as is revealed before the credits), without any of the terrifying problems caused by sharing consciousness in other examples shown in the episode before. And I enjoyed it. So much.
But it feels too much like right, so I cannot help but think of all the things that went wrong. The “supremacists” who are still out there in that world, living lives as if nothing happened, after torturing a man for years. The bits of Nish’s father’s tortured soul, spread out all over the earth like trinkets. The flame engulfing just one man, just one museum, just one prison, without a nod to all the many, many guilty parties who made it all possible on a systematic level.
I do not trust my enjoyment of this, but I trust that what white people see when they watch a story isn’t supposed to be what I see. And maybe for them this was simply a cautionary tale for what might happen when they do business with “supremacists.” Maybe that’s why they placed themselves in the “main character” Haynes’ shoes. But if you are Nish, not Haynes, you would know it is too late for cautions now. And if all of us Black folks are Nish, maybe burning down one man, one prison, one museum each is enough.