#BackChannel: The Power Of 'Being Seen,' Media Portrayals Of Police & 'Driving While Black'

Oct 21, 2020

Artwork by Ronald Jackson for the 'Being Seen' podcast.
Credit Courtesy of Being seen

How much does it matter to see people who look and identify like you in the media that you consume? In the new podcast "Being Seen" host Darnell Moore examines what it means to have culturally accurate and responsible depictions of the Black, male, queer experience. He joins host Frank Stasio and popular culture experts Natalie Bullock Brown and Mark Anthony Neal on this edition of #BackChannel, a series connecting culture and context, to talk about his interviews with artists, writers and others. 

Stasio, Brown and Neal also look at the way police officers have been cast in the media and dig into Megan Thee Stallion’s New York Times opinion piece on why the phrase "protect Black women" shouldn’t be controversial. Plus, they look at the racial disparity in who gets funding and support in the documentary community and examine the new PBS documentary "Driving While Black" as a case study. Natalie Bullock Brown is a filmmaker and teaching assistant professor at North Carolina State University. Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor and chair of the department of African and African American studies at Duke University. He is also an author and the host of the webcast "Left of Black."

Interview Highlights

On Megan Thee Stallion's performance on "Saturday Night Live":

Brown: For an entertainer who is most likely — especially as a Black woman — going to be told to stay in her lane, stay out of politics, [or that]: You don't know what you're talking about … I really admire and respect that Megan is using her platform to shine a light on these issues, especially as she herself has had to deal with not being protected in several situations where her life was pretty much endangered. It speaks to the fact that there is a running theme in this country of Black women not being protected, not having a voice. And when something happens to us, it's not deemed important. It's where our lives are not valuable. And she's really sounding the alarm on that.

Neal: I've also been struck by the fact that when women performers stand out and speak truth to power, they're not given the same kind of support and affirmation that we hear in terms of Black men doing those same things. So if Megan Thee Stallion had said that she was starting a political party three weeks before a national election, if Cardi B had said that she was going to create a contract for Black America and make a deal with Donald Trump — they wouldn't have any latitude in that in the way that we now see Black men like Diddy Combs and Ice Cube getting the kinds of latitude. Though it's very clear in terms of this political season, definitely, that Black women, whether in terms of folks like Megan Thee Stallion — or the more established Black woman politicians who've been working with the Democratic Party — are really laying the groundwork for this particular political moment with Black people.

On so-called "copaganda":

Neal: The idea behind copaganda is that we watch this stuff on television, and we get a sense of how we should interact with the police, in which the police are always do-gooders who are doing the best for the society. And the criminals who are policed and over-policed deserve to be policed the way that they are.

Brown: There have been movies, like "Boyz n the Hood," and the racist Black cop that is portrayed in that film had an impact. The film "Crash" had an impact. I began to think more critically about the role of police in Black communities. And certainly as I became more politically conscious, I realized that there's a huge disconnect between what we see on television and other mass media and what is actually happening in the street.

On the PBS documentary "Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility In America":

Brown: I think the thing that bothered me the most about this film — in spite of all that it strives to do, and I think does fairly well — is that I just felt like it was triggering. … There's a lot of footage — contemporary cell phone footage and maybe even television footage of Black drivers being pulled over and harassed [and] brutalized by the police. And it almost feels like it's a pile-on, that it's intended, of course, to make a point. But what it does for Black viewers, I think, is it triggers and traumatizes all over again.

Neal: For many Black folks, it shows the ingenuity — whether we're talking about the Green Book or some of these other books that help people travel — it talks about the ingenuity of Black folks within the system of segregation to be able to still pursue leisure and freedom and mobility.