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Black Mirror – Black Museum (Review)

One of the more interesting aspects of Black Mirror‘s migration from Channel 4 to Netflix has been the subtle shift from British science-fiction horror towards American science-fiction horror.

The two episodes bookending the fourth season – USS Callister and Black Museum – exemplify this trend, episodes that would seemed very out of place when Black Mirror was “just” a quirky British anthology. USS Callister is obviously steeped in the iconography of a very American science-fiction institution, and while its male entitlement is not a uniquely American experience, that attitude has been more firmly tied into modern American politics than to  contemporary British politics.

Black Museum is even more overtly American, to the point that even the lead character’s British accent is revealed as a sham. The episode opens with a montage that practically screams “Americana!”, a big American car driving through a big American desert, a long stretch of road dwarfed by a seemingly infinite stretch of nothing, where even the jutting mountains provide a sense of impressive scale. Black Museum is set in the mythological America, a country so large that it occasionally seems to be nothing but nooks and crannies, populated with curiousities and eccentricities.

Black Museum unfolds within one such curiousity, a macabre collection of the grotesque and the ghoulish, a twenty-first century freak show run by a twenty-first century P.T. Barnum. However, over the course of the hour, the shape of Black Museum comes into focus. This is not merely a story embracing American trappings, it is also engaging with a distinctly American horror. Slowly, over the course of seventy minutes, Black Museum reveals itself as a science-fiction allegory about the exploitation of African American bodies and African American suffering; one of America’s original sins.

American identity is, and always has been, strongly tied to race. If nothing else, the last election proved this. Race simmers behind almost every aspect of American politics, from the war on drugs to the accountability of law enforcement. In the past decade or so, this political subtext has come to the fore and entered the public debate, notably through the election of Barack Obama and the election of Donald Trump. However, while because race has finally become an inescapable part of modern American political discourse, it has always been central.

It is hard to specify one “original sin” of the United States of America. It might have been the genocide of the Native Americans by the European Settlers. It might have been the use of slavery to build a powerhouse economy. Whatever it is, it has always been hard to talk about, understandably. There is an anxiety about acknowledging the central role that slavery played in the lead up to the American Civil War. There is a stubborn refusal to talk about what those Confederate flags and monuments actually represent.

By some arguments, the United States has been built upon the exploitation of the African American body. Slavery allowed the United States to become a globally dominant economy, providing a cost-effective workforce for mass production and industry; slaves were a cornerstone of the economy, the lifeblood of the region. Even after the end of slavery, exploitation continued. Illegal and immoral experiments conducted upon unsuspecting African American populations. Mass incarceration of African Americans, creating its own economy and its own vast industrial complex.

(This is to say nothing of more subtle and less quantifiable measures of exploitation and appropriation; the fetishisation and exotisation of the African American body, the appropriation of African American culture for the profit and amusement of white Americans. There is even an argument to be made that the construction of narratives about the African American experience (particularly the suffering inherent in that experience) for primarily white liberal audiences by primarily white studio executives represents its own form of exploitation.)

In recent years, pop culture has begun to talk about this exploitation. Get Out was arguably the most important movie of 2017, an allegory that built this metaphorical exploitation and appropriation of African American bodies into a horror story that literalised these anxieties. Writer and director Jordan Peele argued that it was a story that was at once personal and universal, a narrative rooted in his own experiences and informed by generations of such exploitation and appropriation.

In many ways, Black Museum might be seen as a companion piece to Get Out. Indeed, several sequences in Black Museum seem to consciously evoke Get Out. The second vignette features a character trapped inside another’s mind, a passenger in another body, staring out at the world with no influence. The framing of these sequences recall the “sunken place” in Get Out, where Chris is reduced to a passenger in his own body. Similarly, the climax of Black Museum hinges on an explicit modern parallel to slavery, an African American rendered a prisoner for the amusement of white patrons.

However, Black Museum takes an interesting route to making this point. Critical reaction to Black Museum has been somewhat muted, with many reviewers noting the loose anthology format of the episode and describing it as unnecessary or pointless. Caroline Framke at Vox described the episode as “a leftovers grab bag than a worthy event in and of itself.” Rebecca Nicholson at The Guardian reflected that the episode seemed “to retread old ground.” Zack Handlen at The A.V. Club contended that the episode was “a series of obvious setups that fail to deliver on surprise or insight.”

These criticisms seem reasonable, on the surface. Black Museum is superficially an anthology piece, an anthology-within-an-anthology. There is certainly an argument to be made that Black Museum is a somewhat introspective episode of Black Mirror, engaged with various criticisms about the show’s sadism and cynicism. Also, perhaps, casting some side-eye at audiences who tune in for these episodes expecting to watch fictional characters tortured as part of twenty-first century morality play.

A number of factors likely contribute to this frustration with Black Museum. The first segment is perhaps the most graphic story Black Mirror has ever told, and may even seem like the most gratuitous, while also suggesting a metaphor for the show and its own audience; a doctor who “gets off” on pain as part of a story that features some of the most horrific and shocking visuals that Black Mirror has ever committed to screen. There is something in the story that plays almost like Black Mirror parodying its own worst impulses; cynicism, nihilism, revulsion.

There is also the positioning of the anthology episode at the end of the season. It have the appearance – and feeling – of something thrown together at the last minute. There is something almost deliberately frustrating in the structuring of what should be an “event” episode into what appears to be a clip show that references lost episodes of Black Mirror. Season finales are traditionally “big” stories. Historically, they were cliffhangers designed to lure audiences back; now, they tend to be pay-offs. Hated in the Nation was the show’s first true feature-length episode. In contrast, Black Museum feels like a clip show.

However, there is also something very clever in the structuring of Black Museum that extends the concept beyond mere “odds and ends.” Indeed, it feels markedly different than the show’s other anthology episode, White Christmas. There is a sense that Black Mirror is trying something new, even beyond the obvious way that it seems to retroactively structure earlier stories into something resembling a shared universe. The three stories in Black Museum are linked by theme; they focus on vicarious and voyeuristic experiences.

However, they also follow the evolution of the episode’s central technology. As an anthology series, Black Mirror tends to build worlds in which certain technology emerges fully formed. There might be a minor (or even major leap) in a preexisting technology that forms the basis of a given episode, but these technologies tend to exist fully formed as a matter of narrative utility. Black Mirror is a story about people rather than technology, and the emphasis is generally on how technology feeds or enables people’s worst impulses.

As such, Black Mirror seldom devotes episodes to the evolution of a particular technology, the implementation process that takes it from its beginnings as cutting edge prototypes to more mundane applications to accepted use. Black Museum does this, in a way. The episode fudges the details slightly, in that its three stories don’t always feel like the clearest progression of technological advancement, instead feeling like three thematically-linked stories featuring similar technologies. However, there is a strong thread running through the episode, a clear sense of cause and effect.

The first story features a prototype designed for medical use, perhaps reflecting on the development of commercial concepts as part of (likely government-supported) scientific research and development. The second story finds a variant of that technology used to transmit a person’s consciousness rather than their emotional state, still with a humanitarian pretense. The third story finds that technology applied to provide a ghoulish freakshow, a twenty-first century answer to the work of P.T. Barnum in which a facsimile of human consciousness is tortured for the amusement of visitors.

This is an interesting narrative of itself, in some ways providing a broader context for Black Mirror‘s engagement with how human beings use technology. After all, it is not just the technology itself, it is how people chose to develop that technology and the avenues and potentialities that people chose to realise with that technology. What begins as something exclusive (and even regulated) quickly becomes something mundane. What was initially intended to save lives is eventually monetised or trivialised.

There are countless examples. The modern internet descended from a host of governmental, scientific and academic computer networks; at the turn of the millennium, there was some mild amusement at the fact that something created with such lofty ideals would ultimately be used so that people could “come together to b!tch about movies and share pornography with one another.” Lucozade was originally created as a medicine, and only treated as a soft drink since the mid-eighties. Technology that NASA developed for space travel is used to make golf clubs.

In its own way, Black Museum suggests how such technology might be shaped and sculpted by the demands of society. The initial device has an obvious humanitarian purpose; it is designed to help doctors diagnose illnesses in a much more efficient manner. In the second story, there is a sense that the company is exploring the possible commercialisation of such technology, still within the framework of healthcare. In the third and final story, any humanitarian pretense has been stripped away from the device, which is purely a means by which Rolo Haynes might profit from Clayton Leigh’s suffering.

(There is no small irony in the fact that a technology that is initially designed to extend empathy is ultimately subsumed to humanity’s rejection of that empathy. The device is originally intended to allow a doctor to feel a patient’s pain. In the first story, the switch gets flipped and it does the exact opposite, allowing the subject to enjoy another’s suffering. This literalises the metaphorical arc of the technology, which ends up with one poor soul’s suffering and agony immortalised for the amusement and satisfactions of patrons who enjoy that suffering in manner only slightly less direct.)

Black Museum also ties up this evolution in ideas anchored in race. The first story buries the lede somewhat, focusing on an exclusively white primary cast. However, race comes into focus during the second story, when Rolo Haynes selects Jack as the subject for the first human trials of his consciousness swap. It is a very cynical move on Haynes’ part, preying on a family affected by crisis. However, Jack is also an African America. As such, the use of Jack as a subject for these trials also conjures up memories of illegal and immoral experimentation upon African Americans by government and industry.

It is in the third story that Black Museum‘s thesis comes into focus. Haynes plans on using the technology for his own material gain, and so co-opts a volunteer. He recruits Clayton Leigh. Several things make Leigh the perfect target for Haynes; Leigh is on death row, his family need money, and he has not been fully informed of the particulars of Haynes’ plan. The historical parallels are even more unsettling here, evoking memories of the horrific radiation trials on prison inmates and evoking broader debates about the possibility of giving informed consent in such circumstances.

Haynes conjures up a grotesque spectacle, allowing guests to the eponymous institution the opportunity to visit with Leigh and to relive his execution; tourists even get to flick the switch, participating in the re-staged execution. This is the spectacle of African American suffering, enabled by technology and served up to a willing audience, all so that the grotesque institution might profit from the violence and horror. It is a deeply unsettling story, but one that Black Museum codes in explicitly racial terms.

Black Museum makes it clear that this is a story about more than just one unethical business man and one unfortunate convict. It is a larger statement. The title of the episode evokes a monument to centuries of oppression and violence, of the monetised suffering of a minority population for the enrichment of a privileged class. The so-called “black museum” is a symbol, a stand-in, an embodiment of something that has been happening for a long time and which continues to happen in different ways and different forms.

Black Museum acknowledges this racial subtext explicitly and implicitly. The patrons seen in flashback are predominantly white, with the exception of one teenager of Asian extraction. Nish mentions how Haynes became so desperate for cash that he would even lease Leigh out to “some classic race-hate rich guy with a hard-on for power” who could properly savour the experience. The characters in-universe seem to have recognised the side-show for what it was, with Nish describing how Haynes would dismiss protestors as “virtue-signaling bullsh!t.”

One of the big recurring themes of the fourth season of Black Mirror is the question of the agency and autonomy of what is traditionally deemed to be “less human.” Frequently, these “less than human” entities are treated as disposable copies that exist to satisfy the whims of those holding more power; classic science-fiction parables of slavery, as articulated by Guinan and Jean-Luc Picard in The Measure of a Man. Slavery hinged upon the idea that those who existed in bondage were somehow less than those who governed them; less deserving, less feeling, less human.

Black Mirror

Episodes like USS Callister and Hang the DJ are both built around the idea of computer-generated intelligences who assert their agency. USS Callister finds Robert Daly populating his fantasy with copies of co-workers who have wronged him, forced to play along for his amusement. Hang the DJ finds two characters falling in love against all odds, only to find out that they are a computer simulation being run to provide statistical data for a dating app. In both cases, Black Mirror asks the audience to accept the humanity of these entities that clearly defy current classifications of humanity.

Appropriately enough, the “Black Museum” is populated with such relics and artifacts. Carrie finds herself places inside a toy monkey with only two forms of expression – “monkey loves you” and “monkey needs a hug.” Similarly, Haynes’ central attraction is a hologram that has been infused with a replica of a dead inmate’s personality. These are literally dehumanised, rendered “objects” by any metric, and so can be exploited and abused with impunity. In fact, Haynes’ contempt for any attempt to recognise these creatures’ autonomy is palpable. “Human rights for cookies.”

Tying these science-fiction high concepts back to real-world problems like racism and oppression is always tricky. It is very easy for these comparisons to seem trite or tone-deaf. Indeed, it should be noted that Black Museum was written by Charlie Brooker and directed by Colm McCarthy, two white British men. There is an argument to be made that Black Museum is in some small way part of this larger culture of exploitation, itself a grotesques sideshow in which the horrors of the African American experience are played out for the audience’s morbid curiousity.

At the same time, Brooker and McCarthy work hard to make sure that Black Museum is not just a superficial allegory that borrows the imagery and iconography of slavery to tell a science-fiction horror story. Indeed, the choice of Colm McCarthy as director is informative; McCarthy’s biggest credit to date remains the feature film The Girl With All the Gifts, which similarly uses familiar science-fiction horror trappings to explore all manner of modern racial anxieties. Black Museum pays a lot of attention to its themes, and clearly articulates that this is not an abstract metaphor.

Indeed, Black Museum makes an interesting companion piece to Get Out, particularly in its closing minutes. In the final moments of the episode, it is revealed that Nish has used the procedure from the second short story to implant her mother within her head. Her mother, who witnessed the horror that Haynes and the state inflicted upon her father, is still a part of Nish’s consciousness. The two exist in conversation with one another, Nish allowing her mother the opportunity to see justice done and Angelica gets to share the sum of her experiences with her daughter.

This evokes the idea that the African American experience is in some ways a shared one, that it exists as part of a continuity that extends further back than the world as it exists today. These experiences and these memories are meaningful, and provide a context for the way that things are, in a way that very few other people appreciate. Get Out evoked this through the use of Swahili music in the opening scenes, chants in a language to which Chris has no modern association, but which serve to warn him about the dangers of the situation into which he has wandered.

In the two seasons since it moved to Netflix, Black Mirror has shifted its emphasis away from the United Kingdom and towards the United States. Black Museum is perhaps the culmination of this trend, a futurist horror story in which the demon lurking just over the horizon is the same one that has haunted the country for generations. The opening scenes of Black Museum suggest that the United States is a big country with a vast wilderness, but never one so vast that these sins can be forgotten. They lurk in every nook and cranny, replayed and repeated, echoing in the void.

This sense of repetition is reinforced by the decision to bookend the episode with Nish playing (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me on her car speakers. The song initially seems innocuous, the tale of someone who misses their former lover so much that they cannot help but see the spectre in everything around them. In the broader context of the episode, the song takes on a darker and more ironic meaning. Black Museum suggests that past injustices are inescapable, that the original sin of racial oppression infuses every aspect of the larger country.

Appropriately enough, this shift across the Atlantic also brings with it a curious sense of optimism. It has been remarked that the two most recent seasons of Black Mirror tend to be more optimistic in their endings than the two earlier years. Endings in the fourth season of Black Mirror also tend to be new beginnings. The crew of the eponymous ship break free in USS Callister, and cruise through an open-world game. Sara breaks free of her mother in Arkangel. The real Amy and Frank meet up in Hand the DJ.

In some ways, this reflects the United States itself; a country built on the myth of new beginnings and limitless potential. For all its horror and violence, Black Museum ends on the most optimistic note possible, with Nish freeing the ghost of her father and burning down the crooking institution that entrapped him. In doing so, Nish seems to have afforded herself some sense of closure, and rendered the vast open wilderness of the countryside a blank canvas upon which she might write her own story.

It is perhaps the happiest ending that one might hope for.

2 Responses

  1. I was secretly hoping you would cover this show. Do you plan to write about other episodes?

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