George Floyd and Trauma Porn: A History

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    George Floyd and Trauma Porn: A History

    Spike Lee attends the 91st Oscars Nominees Luncheon in Beverly Hills, Calif., February 4, 2019. (David McNew/Reuters)

    How Spike Lee’s semiotics of death created Millennial icons of George Floyd and Eric Garner

    Joe Biden’s commemoration of George Floyd marked the one-year anniversary of trauma porn. The video of Floyd’s fatal arrest (still controversial despite a contentious trial) is credited for kick-starting the global spread of the Black Lives Matter movement under the guise of moral outrage. Even the Oscars praised Darnella Frazier’s amateur cellphone video of the incident as a landmark, equal in significance to Hollywood’s own productions. Frazier’s recording of a black American male’s actual death, endlessly broadcast by mainstream media, facilitated the progressive political animosity to which Biden owes his presidency. But those images also became the emblem of modern race consciousness and threaten to redefine contemporary art.

    Floyd’s prone body and officer Derek Chauvin’s agitated facial expression — images without a backstory — projected familiar yet unexamined race and class differences. It provoked brand-new American imperialist guilt that everyone is cowed by.

    That explains the video’s illicit thrill. It’s prurient and obscene, and its mortification has been taken up by news media for everybody to see repeatedly and thus abuse themselves — self-righteously. It’s trauma porn.

    The Los Angeles Times addressed the subject of trauma porn in an April 19, 2021, article on recent violent movies and television programs featuring brutalized black Americans. But one of the best demonstrations of trauma porn came from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi when, on April 20 following the Chauvin-trial verdict, she praised the late George Floyd in a phony religious allegory: “Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice.” Pelosi’s comment about “sacrifice,” officially making drug-abuser, felon Floyd into an American martyr, did exactly what craven movie and TV producers do: It was a calculated reworking of the trauma-porn impulse, unaccountably supported by Eleanor Holmes Norton, the black congresswoman from D.C., standing by to lend approval to Pelosi’s race exploitation.

    Art-conscious politicians might well consider another trauma-porn landmark, the one-year anniversary of Spike Lee’s 3 Brothers, released at this time last year. Running one and a half minutes, the short film uses disturbing visual rhetoric, intercutting the Radio Raheem choke-hold scenes from Lee’s fictitious Do the Right Thing, from 1989, with the public-domain cellphone videos of George Floyd’s and Eric Garner’s arrests. In the same way that Lee’s Chi-Raq totally bungled the black-on-black gang killings in Chicago, 3 Brothers jumbles together unrelated social events and public protests. Lee oversimplifies the obvious, immediate responses to his own imagery. (Lee’s gloating agitprop also sullies the title of Francesco Rosi’s 1982 familial masterpiece, Three Brothers.)

    Lee’s propaganda is used to sicken, not inspire — trauma porn that’s deathly not erotic. Lee joined the Fake News cabal that manipulates viewers — particularly black viewers — into believing they’re victimized. The most disgusting image-making this century has been the news media’s careless repetition of death scenes, recklessly shown out of context. The demoralizing result has transformed public sentiment into social disintegration.

    We should ask the basic journalistic questions of 3 Brothers: Who, What, Where, When, How, and Why. These standards for facts and information are also aesthetic standards that must be applied even to the specious works of manipulation that are Lee’s specialty, which is movies designed to stir more anger, disgust, and discontent — but never satisfaction.

    White-exploitation movies aim at a specific audience, trauma porn targets us all to force a social reckoning. Trauma porn benefits white and black politicians seeking easy popularity, just as it is the currency of social-justice media and the Marxist odiousness taught in academia. University of California, Irvine, professor Frank B. Wilderson’s Afro-pessimism theory calls trauma porn by a more sophisticated label: “the semiotics of death.” Wilderson’s theory helps us connect the image of George Floyd’s dying to other signs of deliberate finality, from lynching to police killings, that the media use to certify Western culture’s abuse of “the black body.” (That phrase is rich with the history of academic political indoctrination, favored by post-graduate media hires.)

    According to Hollywood producers and manipulative liberals, Jim Crow, lynching, and corporal violation have not ended since slavery. The TV genre that encompasses HBO’s Watchmen, Antebellum, Lovecraft Country, Them, and The Underground Railroad would not exist without endless iterations of the 1921 Tulsa race riots as justification for trauma-porn narratives. They fit into the conundrum of Afro-pessimism that Hollywood hustlers take as an excuse for the genre’s self-righteous sensationalism, starting with Precious, 12 Years a Slave, Get Out, and Us, with more like Dawn Porter’s Rise Again surely to come.

    Trauma porn is not just about the exploitation of marginalized people (black-on-black gang violence that might also be seen as trauma porn is exempt from media and political attention). It’s also meant to keep voters fearful and partisan. Before the Los Angeles Times spotlighted the label, we had already experienced how news media traditionally used trauma porn as part of their “If it bleeds, it leads” yellow-journalism philosophy. News media proved their liberalism — through over-insistence on pathos-driven stories about racial victimization. No one considers the 1992 Rodney King police-brutality video as trauma porn, given that it challenged all precepts of observation and judgment. But times, aesthetics, and media bias have changed. Traumatizing imagery connects to the new sense of shame and helplessness and to Obama’s call to “fundamentally transform America.”

    For New Yorkers, video images of Eric Garner’s fatal moments after illegally selling “loosies” (cigarettes) and resisting arrest were more deeply ingrained, through constant repetition, than the campaign images of Bill de Blasio’s big-Afro’d biracial son. As de Blasio and Pelosi know, these images manipulate racial identity. Their sentimentality brainwashes, setting new moral precedents and becoming an effective tool for anarchists and power grabbers, whether they’re politicians or filmmakers like Spike Lee.

    Trauma porn — the genre of violent film imagery that uses black people to instill viewers’ guilt, pity, and horror — is no different from the phrase “systemic racism” spouted by media folk who think they’re saying something intelligent. Using symbols without depth or explanation leads to what art critic Maureen Mullarkey has called “the treachery of images.” When mainstream media repeat images of black deaths or of George Floyd’s large, accusatory facial features — on many placards and murals, he resembles Picasso’s Cubism — the effect is not complicated, and it’s not art. The celebration and commemoration of trauma porn is just political filth and cultural rot.

    Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon. @3xchair

    Published at Wed, 26 May 2021 10:30:26 +0000

    https://www.nationalreview.com/2021/05/george-floyd-and-trauma-porn-a-history/