By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid
I really, really wanted to like CNN’s Black in America 4: The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley (which premiered last night) as well as Miss Representation, a documentary currently airing on OWN. Both, however, left me feeling the same way, which looks something like this:
A couple of synopses before I state why I felt this way:
Black in America 4 explores the rarely discussed facts and stories of Black people in digital technology, especially those who are inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs. Host Soledad O’Brien frames this through the stories of eight African American entrepreneurs who move into together as part of digital business owners Angela Benton’s and Wayne Sutton’s NewME Accelerator program, which provides Black entrepreneurs time and (relative) quiet space—and possible connections with venture capitalists—for their business ideas.
Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation connects some of the dots between the stats, the personal stories, and media images about women and how those images affect not only those in the media— Margaret Cho recounts the fatphobia and other drama around her 1994 comedy All American Girl — but also those consuming the media, meaning the rest of us.
Now, I know that both shows are, respectively, very much Black Studies and Women’s Studies 101, presented as and for those who may know very little to nothing about either Black tech innovators and owners or media literacy and feminism. So, I can see both try to provide a “hook” for their audiences with that in mind. However, the way their respective creative teams frame their stories does both topics a disservice.
When I asked O’Brien about the aim of this installment at a preview screening, she said, “First of all, [Blacks] are clearly using the technology, but we’re not innovating the technology. And Silicon Valley keeps saying how colorblind it is. So, this part of the series examines that statement.”
Watching BiA4, I felt like I was watching O’Brien trying to mash a news report with a reality show. (“Watch what happens when tech-y Black folks get real…with Soledad O’Brien!”) I can understand that the NewME Accelerator was a good (and, from a seeing-news-as-a-business standpoint, a fiscally feasible way) for CNN to gather a group of Black tech business owners (and the non-Black people who attempt to help and/or comment on them) to tell a relatable narrative about the dearth of Black people in the field. (BiA4 states early on that less than 1% of digital entrepreneurs are Black. The majority, it says, are white, young, Ivy League and first-tier university drop-outs, which, as pointed out in the post-screening Q&A screening I attended, is a privilege unto itself as far as starting businesses.) But I actually think a better way to tell both stories is to decouple them. If I could reconstruct the story, I would have had O’Brien, say, follow one or two Black digital entrepreneurs in depth as they attempted to get investors and utilized Benton and Sutton as pundits— along with angel investor/philanthropist Mitch Kapor, who directly refutes Michael Arrington’s claim of the digital ownership as “meritorious.” Or I would have followed the NewME Accelerator crew as the main subjects of a full-length documentary to air on CNN.
Also, another questionable point is how Asians and Asian Americans are considered in this report. The show starts off by saying that the tech-innovation worlds are “white and Asian.” Though the presence of Asians and Asian Americans should not lead to Arrington’s erroneous conclusion that the tech world is, therefore, “colorblind,” the presence of Asian and Asian Americans shouldn’t be discounted as failing to bring racial diversity to tech communities. The more subtle equation BiA4 makes, however, is “Black=racial diversity.”
At least BiA4 addresses, albeit imperfectly, race and racism in the tech field, Miss Representation — for all of the visually racial diversity (you see Cho, former Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice, Dreamworlds director Sut Jhally, media-literacy advocate Malkia Cyril, and Newark, NJ mayor Cory Booker, among others) — fails to talk about the issue of race and racism. When I asked why at a post-screening Q&A, the response was “We only had 90 minutes, though we’re planning a second movie to deal with race.” (Refer to image at top of this post.)
However, there were places in the film where race and racism could be mentioned, and it would have taken about 30 seconds. For example, a young Black woman talks about her hair and how media images make her feel about it. The narrator could easily say something like, “Far too many images we see in the media are of white women swinging long, flowing hair. Imagine how that would make a woman of color, whose hair may not do that, feel?”
I timed it: the quote took all of 15 seconds to read out loud. (I’ll be generous and give it about 30 seconds to account for dramatic voiceover.) Or even acknowledge that the majority of media images—both in the film and in entertainment itself, from news to shows to porn—are mostly of white women as both idealized and in variety of roles…and these are, quite a bit of the time, functioning in tandem. Again, all of a thirty-second voiceover or a statistic that could be one of many the film uses to further its argument on how the media hurts women and other people. The silence about race (actress Rosario Dawson is the only person who explicitly mentions “people of color”) — as well as class, gender identity, sexual identity, and and physical ability, though the film does give a nod at how the media, especially television, fails to acknowledge women above the age of 35 as an audience or as characters — flattens the documentary’s discussion about women to the category of “woman,” as if female-presenting people all suffer from media images the same way. Of course, we don’t.
And I just quite can’t with Black in America 4 and Miss Representation.
Image credit: Bossip