Sometimes, when I'm awake as the sky starts to lighten and dawn threatens its arrival, I look up videos of protests.

I look for ones I've been at specifically, scanning faces shining with sweat for a glimpse of my own. I see my friends, always in the background of a shot, and I know if whoever was filming turned only the slightest bit, I would be there. But they never turn, and I never make my debut on screen. Instead, I watch strangers on nights that I have mostly forgotten on repeat. I watch incidents that I had only heard about in passing because I was off handling some other incident, at the same time, at the same protest. I make myself numb with each sip of lukewarm soda while forcing my brain to refresh and update every memory.

It's the only way I know how to mimic how I felt on those nights; when rifles were held a foot from my face, when my hijab was a razor burn across my own neck, when I was reminded of how little I mattered to the police before me and the community I stood beside. It's the only way I know how to trigger my disassociation in environments where there's nothing to distract me or scare the ghost of myself from surveying its own body. I value the autonomy I have in those moments, where I am allowed to navigate my own triggers and work through the reactions that follow without the scrutinising public eye.

It is the fear I have of public reactions that makes it difficult for me to see Black history movies now. It has been critiqued numerous times that movies set in eras of widely recognised, communal Black suffering sensationalise pain. We see it in slave narratives, where we are fed constant images of Black people being whipped, raped, and killed. We see it in Selma, where we watch Black people being beaten over and over and over. We are expected to understand that Black narratives always have to orient around trauma. In almost every movie, we reach a point where the displays of pain do nothing to narrate the story, but only serve to tell outside spectators, "See? We weren't lying. Things were bad."

Within movies, we see our realities being hyped and put on display, following old traditions in regards to reducing us to our bodies. We are separated and outcasted from our own narratives, reduced to the role of a vessel for a greater message. In movies that center Black people, we at some point exist only to make a point in protest to a white audience. But I don't go to movies for protests. I don't spend the last of my money on a ticket in order to make a point. I go to movies because I genuinely enjoy them. I like watching movies for face value, taking joy in real time in a period of my life where joy is often denied to me. I like the relative quiet of theaters, where it's easy to convince myself there's nothing but me, the screen, and the story being told. But I go into these movies now with tense muscles, as if I'm preparing myself to spring out of a car onto a highway again.


Photo of the author on a highway, again.


It was only after seeing Hidden Figures that I fully realized just how tense in movies I was. Hidden Figures is set within the Civil Rights era and focuses on the stories of Katherine Johnson (Tarji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and their groundbreaking work at NASA. At the beginning of the film, there's a scene where Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson speed down the highway after a police escort. In their car, with a wide smirk on her face, Jackson comments on the absurdity of three Negro women in a car chasing down a white man in Virginia in 1961. I remember thinking to myself that there would be later scenes to fully speak to the irony, some unnecessarily glamorised moment of protest that would cut the laugh from Jackson's throat.

In a later scene, Dorothy Vaughan walks her children past picketers on the street. The camera switches focus between the snarling, agitated police dogs and their handlers, batons on their belts, cold gaze fixed on the protesters and their circle. I felt harshly reminded of the fear I had for my friend when I heard of the security dog attacks at Standing Rock. Fear wasn't a cold wash over my body, but an assault of memories that I hadn't asked to recall. I expected that scene to be a moment where I would be forced to relive the occupation again, each swing of a baton on screen triggering the memories of every hit my body had taken. I became acutely aware of the way my body tensed in my chair, each breath sticking in my throat, preparing for the moment I would have to force the only part of myself that was mobile to leave the theater, and my body, but the moment never came. The dogs never lunged, the protesters never cried, and the movie went on.

The Civil Rights Movement made its way into the movie outside of that one scene. It was there in quiet moments of men turning on the news so their children would be aware of the reality of their people; it was there in bitten arguments at church picnics and crept back in when Mary Jackson made her appeal to attend night classes at an all-white school to become an engineer. It was present, but it existed without glamour. It was a reality that affected their lives, but it never took from their stories to become the focus. The critiques of movies utilising scenes of state violence against Black people to draw attention and earn extra points draws on the same critiques given to activists and media handling this movement. I cannot tell you how many times I have accidentally watched a Black person die while scrolling through Facebook or watching the news with my grandmother. I cannot tell you how many times I wanted to demand warnings while knowing my fingers wouldn't cooperate well enough to type and my concerns would be easily dismissed. "People need to see this" is the standard response, ignoring not just how constant exposure leads to desensitisation, but also the basic fact that I am human. And I don't need to see this.

I left Hidden Figures thankful that night. We had the opportunity to see Black women, who existed with multiple identities (as mothers, as wives, as scientists). We got to watch them on screen with their own stories, struggles, and relationships that reminded me of my own. We got to see the stories of Black women whose achievements were gifted to nobody but themselves; whose stories were not subtracted from to make a "larger" point. Within that theater, the Black people watching were allowed to laugh, and react, without being pushed aside as another causality to appeal to a white audience. I was allowed a moment of reprieve to recognise the legacies of three Black women without my trauma being triggered and reduced to another YouTube clip or review point on a screen. As I struggle to identify myself outside of my role within a tiring movement, I got to see Black women who existed in a familiar setting of social protest, but whose lives and work wasn't forced to be defined by pain. And that was something I needed to see.

Vanessa Taylor is a community organizer and writer from Minneapolis, Minnesota. They can be found any time (at all times) on their twitter.