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ASU Professor On Why Actors Are Pushing Back Against 'Black Pain' Stories

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, May 3, 2021 - 1:39pm
Updated: Monday, May 3, 2021 - 1:44pm

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn
Arizona State University
Aviva Dove-Viebahn

Sixteen-year-old Marsai Martin, one of the stars of ABC's "black-ish," has been making headlines of late not just for her achievements but for the kinds of projects she says she won’t be taking on: what she calls “Black pain” projects.

In fact, it’s a conversation that’s coming up more and more among Black actors, writers and critics right now — that there are too many films showcasing Black people suffering, tragedies that end in despair. What about stories of Black people thriving, loving, being happy?

Aviva Dove-Viebahn says it’s all about striking a balance. Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at ASU, and The Show spoke with her for more about the subject.

Interview Highlights

Let's talk a little bit more about that sort of pushback against this idea. You say the criticism, it sounds like, is not necessarily of the content itself, but of the that being the only content that we see.

I mean, for me, that's always been my big sticking point, right? I recognize that ... it's hugely important to have representations, particularly of historical events or, you know, historical fiction, right? ... I think for me, the problem is if this is the only image we're seeing or or the most frequent image we're seeing of Black lives is stories of pain and suffering, then one, it convinces ... many media makers that those are the only stories that sell and they continue to make those stories. And two, then for viewers, be they Black themselves or members of other races and communities and ethnicities, it can become sort of like embedded in your consciousness, right? ... And on the sort of flip side, I think for viewers  who aren't Black can sometimes, and I think a lot of this is unconscious — I'm not saying that people are necessarily thinking this consciously — it can then inspire sort of a sense of pity or a need to save people. And those are also problematic responses, right?

There are lots of, as you say, joyful stories out there about Black people that are not maybe necessarily being told or not at the same level. What are the ones that are out there?

If we're going to like big blockbuster films ... I'm sure everyone would sort of expect me to say "Black Panther," and "Black Panther" is actually a great example. ... When "Black Panther" came out, people talked about how groundbreaking it was, right? This film with mostly Black cast. One of the things I thought was so striking about "Black Panther" was not just the mostly Black cast, but that we have in the film four really strong, compelling Black women characters who are different from each other. ... And then on a sort of more indie level, Radha Blank, she's the writer and director and star of this comedy called "The 40-Year-Old Version." ... It's about a struggling playwright who doesn't want to write Black trauma stories anymore. And that's all anyone is buying. Another film I really loved that came out last year was "Sylvie's Love," which was directed by Eugene Ashe. And it's a romance and ... he has said about the film that he just wanted to make a kind of classic romance film with Black characters whose Blackness is important to their identities and to their lives, but doesn't cause them sort of undue suffering, right? The conflict in the film comes from other things.

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