Do Black Lives Matter to Westworld? On TV Fantasies of Racial Violence




In the first season of HBO’s Westworld — a show about a futuristic Wild West theme park full of eerily humanoid robots where, for an exorbitant price, human guests can do whatever they want to the android “hosts” — the rapacious central character known as Man in Black says that he comes to Westworld to see if he is able to do the unthinkable: kill a black child and her black mother.

In Georgia, in February 2020, Greg McMichael, a 64-year-old white man and his 34-year-old son Travis, bored and full of rage, ran down a 25-year-old young black man named Ahmaud Arbery who was jogging around his block. There was video of the two McMichaels gunning Arbery down in cold blood. But there was no arrest — not until May 2020. Indeed, there would still be no arrest if not for internet outcry and public shaming.

In March 2020, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was killed by police officers Brett Hankison, Myles Cosgrove, and Jonathan Mattingly while sleeping in her home. They are still uncharged and free.

In May 2020, 46-year-old George Floyd was killed by four police officers while gasping “I can’t breathe,” setting off a wave of global protests that Black Lives Matter. One of the four officers, Derek Chauvin, was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter after public outcry. After ten days of global protests, the Minnesota AG announced late yesterday that they would add a second-degree murder charge against Chauvin and file charges against the remaining three officers for aiding and abetting murder.

In this we see the lie at the center of Westworld. There is no need for the fantasy of the Wild West theme park to allow white men to pantomime the unthinkable in order to find their “true nature,” as the game promises. Westworld already exists for them in reality.

Nearly eight years ago in Florida, a teenage boy named Trayvon Martin was walking home after buying Skittles and iced tea and was run down and shot down in cold blood by George Zimmerman — who, again, was not arrested until months later after internet outcry. Zimmerman, with a history of domestic violence and other violent outbursts, was acquitted and let free.

There are countless names of young unarmed black boys and girls murdered in cold blood by white men, sometimes sanctioned with a badge, sometimes not. From Emmett Till’s lynching in 1955 to the modern day killings of Aiyana Jones, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Akai Gurley, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Elijah El-Amin, and so many others in the past few years, this history is still a living breathing thing. It is not dead. It is not reconciled. It is not fantasy.

We say the names of these dead black boys and girls like a litany, reminding the world that their black child lives mattered. They haunt me. Their mothers’ faces — eyes and mouths shuttered tight to not let out the sounding of the horrific pain still resonating through their bodies — float before my eyes.

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I was so excited for Westworld before it premiered. I was excited for the plot, sure to be brilliant because of the genius of its creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. I was excited to see not just one, but three black leads on a show that wasn’t about slavery or basketball. I was excited to watch the excellent black actors here work; they are brilliant. Science fiction and fantasy have long been known for representing stories of marginalization and oppression through allegory and code; I was excited for Westworld to explore these concepts with the talent involved.

But what has become clear over the course of the series — what has become especially clear after this third season — is that although there is diversity in Westworld, the diversity is still relegated to stereotypical, and often painful representations. One wonders which is more harmful: absence, or toxic representation?

Let me begin with this: every single black child on Westworld has been killed. Every single white child has survived to do violence and mayhem — humanized with point of view and background narrative despite committing the most ruthless violence.

To put this another way: all three of the main black characters on Westworld — Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) — have children who are killed. These deaths of their black children serve as foundational character moments and pivotal plot points for the show. It is safe to say these deaths becomes each character’s driving force and thus, violence against black children is one of the primary narrative engines of the series. General anti-black violence becomes another. And so, the same way women of all races critique the pornography of violence against the female body that is a driving force of so many cop and action dramas, I ask this: can we not get more imaginative than only imagining black pain as a catalyst in black life — than monetizing very real black pain for white entertainment and white profit?

Let us look at the black characters in order, starting with the character of Bernard Lowe. Bernard is, in essence, an enslaved character, an android made to fulfill the bidding of his white master, Dr. Robert Ford. Bernard — and it is important to note that the black enslaved character is primarily referred to throughout the series via the slave appellation of first name only and the white master character as Ford or Dr. Ford — is a replica of Ford’s original partner Arnold. Throughout Westworld, Bernard is haunted by the death of his black son — or, rather Arnold’s black son. For Ford, this trauma was the root of Arnold’s genius and so it must also be Bernard’s as well. In conceiving of how to replicate the complex inner life of this black man, Ford identifies death as the key. Here, Westworld tells us, directly and repeatedly, that black suffering is necessary for white economic success and domestic comfort.

In the second season, the brutal death of Maeve Millay’s black daughter is the crux of the plot. Over and over, Maeve witnesses the violent and bloody death of her black daughter on a recurring loop, unable to stop it. We, too, are unable to stop it as viewers — fragments of this trauma are cut into many episodes, a triggering burst of looped trauma just like the horrific spectacle of actual black deaths filmed and replayed on social media. This is set up to be happy entertainment for the white viewer. For black viewers, it can be triggering and retraumatizing.

For me, it was too much. I had to fast forward. This recurring death loop was too much like what I see on the news each night depicting the latest death of an unarmed black child at the hands of a white man with a gun.

And what follows, this spectacle of black pain, of the black mother haunted by reliving the death of her unarmed black child gunned down by a white man, is not fantasy. It is a lived reality for far too many. For Maeve, it becomes an unendurable recurring loop that drives her to suicide from the pain of it all. Reanimated as all the androids must be, she forfeits escape and remains haunted by the spectre of her black child in a prison of her own making.

This past third season, it is the death of Charlotte Hale’s black son that is the focal point of the narrative. In this representation of blackness, in addition to the spectacle of the death of this black child there is also this: the very literal the death of the black family as Hale watches her husband and son die in a car bomb. All of this is rendered even more fraught by the fact that, this season, Thompson’s Hale is actually an android occupied by the consciousness of the show’s white hero/anti-hero Dolores Abernathy: Halores. Here, the black woman’s body functions a site of colonization by the violence of whiteness.

Here, too, is most damagingly the very clear idea, stated by the white European colonizer in his sophisticated colonizing French accent that the robot Halores is a better mother to the black child than the black human mother Charlotte ever was. Again, we have the stereotype of the horrible black mother rearing its head. Black women, Westworld tells us, are so unmaternal that even a murderous serial killer robot is a better caretaker.

As a black woman, I am used to being othered when engaging with art — whether film or literature. I am used to the experience of reading or watching and pleasantly enjoying the story until being hit by a jarringly painful roadblock of ugly racism or sexism — sometimes a sucker punch union of both. You have to swallow these things and put them aside to keep reading, keep watching. If I don’t do this, I won’t be able to read or watch about 80 percent of the things out there — including my favorite sport, tennis, and its tradition of racist commentary towards the Williams sisters. This is the experience of reading and watching while a black woman.

So I was prepared to take the fact that Maeve Millay, the main black woman character and main woman of color character, spent the first season nearly always naked while the other characters were clothed. I could take the fact that this black woman character was cast as a prostitute who was sexually aggressive, whose problem was that she was defective and no longer sexually attractive enough to be fucked by nameless, predominantly white men and women, fulfilling their fantasies of excess and violence. (This again, is not fantasy, but the real world: what black women experienced during American slavery, for example.)

I could take the fact that Maeve, the black woman, had to claw her way out of the maze, experiencing violent death over and over, while Dolores, the white woman, was protected, nurtured and given everything on her path to murderous freedom.

I could take the fact that the second representation of black womanhood introduced later in the first season, Charlotte Hale, is depicted as an unmaternal sex and power crazed Jezebel, another stereotype of black womanhood.

I could take the fact that, when designing his first and most glorious creation that he was to love in replacement of his son, Bernard created not a black boy, or even the black man his son would have become or the black woman who gave birth to his black son, but a blonde, blue eyed porcelain white woman, whom he touched, and fondled, and obsessed over and poured his heart and soul to so much that, eventually, after he asked her to kill him, she was able to recreate him down to the very shadow of a ghost of his thoughts.

I could take the fact that after three years of exploiting black plain and negative black stereotypes, the season finale of season three of Westworld deliberately exploits the iconic visuals of protests from the 2014-2015 era of the Black Lives Matter founded in 2013 by three black women named Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi burned into memory — the backlit black Molotov cocktail thrower, the line of black bodies pressed back by the plexiglass shields of police in riot gear — as the disposable black bodies of Caleb’s (this season’s new white male hero) sometime partners Ash James and G (criminals of course because they are black and must fit a stereotype on this show) are physically violated and arrested so that Caleb the white male hero can be protected and complete his quest.

But I cannot take the constant killing of the black children.

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On Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Omaha, Nebraska, James Scurlock was protesting the murder of George Floyd and the ongoing violence against black people. James was shot dead by Jake Gardner, a white man with white supremacist and homophobic tendencies and owner of Omaha bars The Hive and The Gatsby. Scurlock, reportedly, was trying to disarm Gardner, who was shooting at protesters. Scurlock was unarmed and twenty-two years old, the same age as many of my students at the university one hour’s drive away. The same students I had regaled for much of the semester about the intricate ideas of Westworld’s first two seasons and my anticipation for the third.

On Monday, the Douglas County Attorney’s office announced that Jake Gardner would not be charged for James’s murder; after three days of global protests, the Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine announced they would reluctantly send the case to a grand jury to determine an indictment.

My job as a professor is to teach college kids to think and use their voice. James Scurlock did both. And since his murder, I can’t stop thinking about his needless, senseless death — that he died trying to disarm a white man playacting the Man in Black’s not-so “unthinkable” fantasies with live rounds aimed at live people.

So, now, after this latest third season, Westworld and I will have to part ways. I am tired of the needless and painful death of black children being offered up as entertainment and good fun, when black children and black youth are dying in the real world every day. The failure of the show to address this creates a central problem in the series: that the killing of black children is not a fantasy, but very much our daily lived reality in the real world. And so, too, is the often seen getting-away-with-it by the white perpetrator.

There are those who will try and say that it is the very existence of pain and trauma in Westworld — or rather enlightenment through the memory of pain and trauma — that is the key to solving the mysterious “maze” and attaining consciousness and free will. But it is only the white characters who are allowed this awakening from Plato’s cave and into enlightenment. The black characters function as subordinates or enslaved characters in service to the various white characters within the series and as pornographic suffering for the white gaze viewing the series. And there is something that just sits uncomfortably with watching these images of anti-black violence in a television series that does not reckon with any kind of analysis of blackness, especially its intersection with gender, and with violence; that does not reckon with what these images mean in the time we are living in. Westworld, whose mantra is “these violent delights have violent ends,” is now and has been in a unique position to say something about the meaning and impact of the sorts of images it puts out into the world.

But Westworld, after three seasons of existence alongside the Black Lives Matter movement and continued escalating anti-black violence both on its small screen and in the real world, has nothing to say.

If there were other representations of blackness, or if the nonblack characters had to experience the types of representations the black characters are relegated to, then that would at least be a start. But neither of those things are true of Westworld.

This inequity is what you call racial bias. Or, rather if you prefer, the unconscious racial bias that permeates film and literature that seeps into your mind, affecting how you see and value people. This, then, is how one writes the world, and one then passes that representation to another to see as truth, continuing the cycle. Thus, if you only see black women represented as naked objects to violate (Maeve Millay), or unmaternal sex and power crazed Jezebels (Charlotte Hale) this is both how you write black women characters for the screen and how you see black woman when you see them in the real world. If you believe, ultimately, at your core that black people are essentially inferior and exist to service white people, then you write enslaved characters like Bernard Lowe.

If you only see, onscreen, black children dying and as targets for violence, then this is what you see when you see a black child in the real world.

So why is the frame of the theme park game needed if this violence against black children and other black bodies occurs in reality? Is it, perhaps, to sanitize the death of black children as sport and entertainment, and make money off of it from the watching TV audience?

In the same way the characters in Westworld are entertained by fulfilling the action of desired violence without consequences, the TV audience is supposed to be entertained by living vicariously through the characters on TV fulfilling the actions of violence we will never get to do. This transference is the essence of basic storytelling, of psychology, of advertising, and of film theory. So what is this saying about the kinds of desires the creators of Westworld are putting on mainstream Americans?

I have realized that the creators of Westworld understand something about their target white audience that I never understood about America until this week. Or, if I am honest, I probably understood it, but I didn’t want to admit it for my own well-being. The creators of Westworld understand that their target audience desperately wishes to enact violence, but only upon a specific type of body deemed acceptable as a site of violence because of its blackness. And they pander to it, disguised underneath all the signifiers of prestige television.

Just look at the message President Trump gave America this week: (white) Americans “use your second amendment rights to protect yourself” from these “thugs,” and “we will protect your second amendment rights” he said in a televised press conference in the Rose Garden Monday night. We know who the word “thug” is code for. We know from recent history who is allowed to carry a gun in America and remain alive and who is not.

It is clear who the “you” is. Equally clear is the absence of us black Americans; the “we” who no longer seem to have the rights to peacefully assemble and speak freely — and the erasure of why we are doing so.

Perhaps the only true thing about blackness in Westworld is the depth of the love that Bernard, Maeve and Charlotte Hale/Halores have for their black children. The love of the black child destroyed by white violence is their undoing; the pain of the loss will eat you alive. This at least, is a truthful representation.

So instead of watching Westworld, I will support justice and protest for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and now, 22-year-old James Scurlock, the latest black body killed in reality. And I will try to imagine a fantasy where black life, not black death, reigns supreme.

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