WORDS: MYLES JOHNSON
Television can often serve as a little stationary intruder in your home. All of your resistance and radical thoughts and practice can become challenged by what is in the middle of what should be the safest place in the world; your living room.
I recall as a young child being obsessed with the television sci-fi series, The Twilight Zone. I thought Rod Serling must have been the most powerful man on the Earth to introduce such vivid and thrilling stories. How lucky I am, I thought, to share an Earth where such a grand mind can show up and give me such horrifying magic. I knew that these actors and storytellers were important, known, and rich. I knew I should cherish them. I knew they had a power that I did not have, but that I should desire. My mother might have taken away my television privileges if she knew how highly I was regarding a cis-heterosexual white man in her pro-black, queer inclusive home, but my mother didn’t think to consider the television or film as a possible place for domination to arrive in her young son’s life. When I engage with film and television, I often think of Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone and the ways domination and exploitation can show up in ways we don’t expect.
Lee Daniels recently revealed his past attempts and his current interest in remaking the cult classic documentary, Paris is Burning. Paris is Burning is a film that documents the queer ballroom scene in New York City and the lives of the poor Black and Latino youth that made it possible. In and outside the queer Black and Latino community, the film is exalted as one of the few films that document the reality of being a minority, queer, and poor in America; and what it looks like to attempt to transcend that. Today, most of the characters from this film are dead and they all lived as poor people that arguably desired the fame, fortune, and power that Lee Daniels has acquired.
The idea of Lee Daniels remaking Paris is Burning disturbs me, but it does not shock me. It disturbs me because I rarely see Daniels handle his work artfully and carefully. He seems to be in the business of profiting first and creating art second. Daniels, with each project, shows that he is not willing to represent the communities he might be in close proximity to, but instead, exploit them. This is not a new practice for Lee Daniels. In the film Precious, Lee Daniels uses his material proximity to a culture or experience in order to exploit it. Mo’nique who co-starred and won countless awards for her role in the film of Precious is quoted hinting that Daniels’ interest in the Precious story was not an artistic one, but one based off of profit and material gain. She is quoted saying, “The first thing he said was, ‘We gonna win awards for this. We got the Oscar with this one.’” She replied, “If we save one life, that’s our award. If we do what’s on this paper and put it up on that screen, that’s our award.”
Lee Daniels’ ability to exploit narratives is never questioned because we often only look at shallow evidence of who is a part of a community and who is not. Daniels’ skin color made it possible for him to exploit this narrative to acquire awards and access to more money and power without a true investment in the people and the community he is representing. His skin color made it possible for him to profit from the story of a poor, abused, black woman for his own personal gain. The same is true for shows like Empire that allow Daniels to tap into stereotypes and recreate trauma that invokes ideas of police brutality (when Cookie screams, “If I die in police custody, I did not commit suicide!”) and homophobic violence (the scene of young Jamal being dumped into a trashcan wearing a pair of heeIs and a dress by his father) for white audiences that desire to tour black trauma as a type of primetime entertainment and voyeurism. In his latest series Star, because of his proximity to queerness via being a black gay man, he is able to turn a transgender black woman’s life and trauma into fodder for ratings with little to no questions because we often only imagine exploitation as something cis-heterosexual white men are capable of doing exclusively. When the truth is, capitalist and white supremacist domination is a function that can be carried out by any individual, and gets more dangerous when their capability of exploitation is less clear, although these people with close material proximity to a culture are doing the exact same practices. We can revisit Star where Daniels cast a white woman as the star of the show. We know this practice as a classic way to appeal to white supremacy and capitalism because white womanhood sells and white woman touring marginalized people’s culture sells (re Orange is The New Black), but because of Daniels’ blackness and queerness, he is able to call this classic white supremacist capitalist function ‘diversity’ where if he were in a different body, it would be domination business as usual. This is worrisome.
For New York Times, Lee Daniel is quoted talking about #OscarsSoWhite (a social media campaign interrogating the lack of diversity in the film industry created by writer/speaker, April Reign), “Oscars so white! So what? Do your work. Let your legacy speak and stop complaining, man. Are we really in this for the awards?” This quote is especially ironic when we remember his conversation with actress Mo’Nique concerning Precious. In the lens of domination, Daniels’ response to a black woman created protest that agitates whiteness is almost routine; he desires to protect his ability to exploit or exclude whatever he sees fit for profit with no regard to who might be crushed and/or erased in the process. Daniels’ dismissal shouldn’t just be read as an opinion, but evidence of an investment in domination.
In this same New York Times article, Lee Daniels is asked about his casting of a white woman as the lead character and he responds, “I wanted to show a white girl that had some swag” as “part of the healing process.” He added: “I wanted white people to feel cool. I wanted them to not be made fun of. We are one.” Daniels insinuating that the racial healing process, in a post-Trump America, includes using someone that is apart of the race that notoriously appropriates and dominates people of color is as comical as it is dangerous. His comments suggest that centuries of white domination are equal to a stereotype of white people not having enough “swag”. He fails to articulate that no matter the intentions of positioning a white woman as the lead of a program, it functions as a way to appeal to white supremacy that conveniently lines his pockets handsomely. Daniels’ comments confirm his comfort in domination as long as it is profitable.
The same is true when we think of the possibility of Lee Daniels remaking Paris is Burning. Because Daniels is black and gay, we don’t think of the possible ways he could exploit a culture he has proximity to, but may have no true relationship to beyond the fact they have similar sexual and racial identities. Meaning, he is able to exploit (and perhaps trivialize/romanticize if it does become a musical) the lives of poor Black and Latino gay and transgender people to perpetuate his own stardom, wealth, and power. He is able to devour the poor and most vulnerable of a community because of perceived proximity. This disturbs me because queer stories, especially those of the poor and socially insecure, should be handled artfully and carefully. Queer stories should not be exploited to make a businessperson appear cutting edge or fit a diversity quota. Our communities should be aware of exploitation by people that don’t just materially look like the enemy, but look like us, yet don’t have our best interest in mind when producing work about the community.
During the end of my favorite episode of The Twilight Zone, “To Serve Man”, you see a man approaching a spaceship that will take him to the planet that he believes will be where he is worshiped and exalted for the rest of his life. It is not until he is already captured that a colleague informs him that the book entitled “To Serve Man” was not a how-to guide to making men happy, but a cookbook detailing the best way to prepare men to eat. This is the similar trick of celebrity culture, fame, fortune, and power; we believe we know who means to exalt/platform us and who desires to dominate us, but the truth is we must be vehement about observing people’s behaviors, work, and history to avoid being devoured by the same classic domination practices, but with new more familiar faces.