Hundreds of thousands black women go missing around the world globally, but their abductions often fail to make as much as a ripple in the water let alone the news. “Where are our girls? a term that went viral a few years back to raise awareness for the missing girls in Nigeria, provoking an ethereal outrage that eventually became a comedic meme. Mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins—gone without a trace, “gone missing” too generous a term for a nation that only “misses” black bodies when in need of a body to blame or maim. These women are perhaps more buried than ever in the contemporary resurrection of the hyper visible “woman,” a term that continues to ignore and underrepresent the black body.
Initially, I didn’t make anything of the film’s title. In hindsight the title Traffik presents transparency to the subject matter. The film, in a little under two hours, delineates how a woman goes from bride-to-be, to human trafficking victim. Brea (Paula Patton), and John (Omar Epps) are a young couple in love, enjoying a romantic weekend outside of Sacramento with friends, Darren (Laz Alonso) and Malia (Roselyn Sanchez). Brea is a black female journalist seeking a story after her previous efforts are sabotaged by a white man in a plot that is highly similar to Perfect Stranger (2006), where Halle Berry’s character also becomes immersed in a sinister plot offset by a white woman’s murder. Notably, Brea is a much more naive, and frustrating to watch.
The Strangeness of “Strange Fruit”
Admittedly, part of this frustration is Patton’s “blackness.” Though Patton identifies as black, she functions as racially ambiguous. Alongside Malia played by Hispanic actress Roselyn Sanchez, the films portrayal resumes a constant in displaying non-white love on camera—the darker male and significantly lighter female to portray an intimidating portrait of non-white love to white America. Both women eventually join a slew of Asian and white Women in a white operated human trafficking arrangement where women are sold to the highest bidder. The famished and heavily sedated women are revealed to the audience with Nina Simone’s rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (1939, 1954) playing in the background—a dissonant portrayal that pained me to watch as a being of black female form. This pain takes me back to Ta-nehesi Coates article “Nina Simone’s Face,” where he articulates why exactly Zoe Saldana’s casting in the role of Nina Simone was problematic. The most profound moment in this article is when Coates writes:
There is something deeply shameful in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic.
Similarly, the little girl bound and tossed naked on a crowded ship, or sent as a gift to white men in Europe and the Caribbean during the 16th and 17th century, remains excluded from being the face or even cast in a struggle that has been hers for centuries.
Thus, the only thing strange about the “strange fruit” featured in the film is that none of these berries dangling from the branches of white supremacy are black in color or feature. Though, all featured women are fictively blackened in the camera gaze that displays these women in the blackness of their surroundings, which symbolizes the blackness of the deed that abducted them, and ironically the blackness that created this production.
A “Black” Production
Traffik written and produced by Deon Taylor—a black man, makes this invisibility worse. The black voice as narrator seems an opportunity for the muted voice to speak. But instead of using this visual text as microphone for the mutilated bodies, buried in a forgetfulness, that birthed his being, Taylor’s film proves opportunistic of the time— and the time is intersectional. The Woman that sings the haunting tune that uncovers the “traffik” the title speaks of, Nina Simone—-is black as well. Yet only one of the traffiked women looked as though she could be black. In a film about the faces vanished seemingly without a trace, written and directed by a black men, the black female body remains obscured. The missing girls in Nigeria, that represent the millions of black Women throughout the Diaspora trafficked as the commerce of white supremacy—forgotten and excluded from a narrative that they were the first to tell with their bodies.
This obscurity is a deliberate casualty in the intersectional agenda of the film. Notably, the film is another page in the contemporary #metoo narrative that centers gender prejudice as a core societal evil. Conversely, the film as marketed seems to relay a black male narrative about systemic injustice. Ironically, the two black leads—John (Omar Epps) and Darren (Laz Alonzo)—are murdered by a white man’s supplemental phallus, casualties to what the movie presents as a woman’s conflict with a sexist system. The film does layer its feminist portrayal with the female sheriff, a tall blonde who seems kind and understanding, but actualizes an alliance to the white men who taunt John at a gas station. This alliance is foreshadowed in the unrealistic care the sheriff shows Darren and Brea while chastising a group of white bikers. Though—it turns out the sheriff was just getting the information she needed to recruit more bodies as “traffik.”
The sheriff, a white Woman, betrays her affiliation when she kills her partner, has Brea prepared for trafficking and blames her partner’s death on two black men and a black Woman in her call to the precinct. This scenes’ functionality is two fold. On one hand, it illustrates the white Woman as a trusted figure, the trust enabling her ability to access evil uniquely and perhaps more violently than her male counterparts. This scene also functions to let the viewer know, that despite her appearance, Patton is portraying a black Woman. Now, Patton has said on many occasions that she sees herself as black, and I am not here to debate her blackness. I will say that functionality is very important when it comes blackness. I am not sure that Patton functions as black, and her ambiguity, combined with Roselyn Sanchez issues the world comfort in representation and functions in action to erase the black aesthetic from the conversation of human trafficking.
Though despite this counter-narrative, the white woman remains central in her embodiment of victim. In fact, it is Brea’s concern for the battered (white) “Woman” that proves a catalyst for black male demise and her ethereal abduction. Ultimately, Brea’s experience becomes the news story that saves her career, the film painting Brea as some form of maytr in her survival and ultimate self-appointment to narrator of the sex trafficking experience in so called first world countries. However, what Brea illustrates is the casualty race bears when placed secondary to intersectional attributes.
Color and Re Presentation
Dark skin as a feminine attribute is overtly omitted from the film, covertly suggesting in representation that blackness is inherently masculine as it is only overtly attached to male bodies. It is not until a fair-skinned and fine featured Brea is ebonized by blood and dirt however, that she seemingly becomes vested in survival. This portrayal seems an effort to place Brea into a Harriet Tubman-like role of the “Strong black woman,” that not only saves herself, but others. In representation dark skin equates to strength, but it is something Brea can and does whipe off, in assuming her position as narrator of this story. This is something seem quite often with black figures deemed revolutionary—they are ebonized in the conventionally grimy portions of their story, but whitened when acknowledged for their deeds in celebration.
Writing this review, there is a sinking feeling in my gut. Despite the overwhelming amount of black producers, writers, directors, etc, that have supposedly gained access to the plantation called Hollywood, the black narrative remains untold—illustrating that blackness is a state a mind, a destination, a journey not consummated or even attempted by everyone. As illustrated in every institution from Hollywood to the halls of the institution, the melanated body is trafficked as black in a white supremacist world that only seeks capital by any and all means.
Black Power ❤