Black Mirror’s “Black Museum” and the History of Medical Experimentation on Black Bodies
Most “Black Mirror” episodes come across as “what if this really happened?” but when watching “Black Museum” it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t a fictional cautionary tale. For Black people, it’s very real.
This article contains spoilers for Black Museum.
When deciding which episode of “Black Mirror” to watch first, I was immediately drawn to “Black Museum.” The preview screen showed a Black woman in an old school car somewhere in the desert. I wondered what conundrums a woman who looked like me would find herself in in this technologically advanced, alternate universe.
At the beginning of the episode, Nish (Letitia Wright) stops at a museum just off the stretch of road she’s been traveling on. The museum displays gadgets from high-tech crimes and is owned by a creepy, white man named Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge) who eagerly shows Nish artifacts and tells their detailed backstories, all of which he is personally involved.
Throughout Nish’s tour, the owner teases the main attraction, a hologram of an inmate who can be electrocuted via a museum patron controlled electric chair. It turns out, Nish isn’t the curious traveler she portrays herself to be. Instead, she is the inmate’s daughter who has come to seek revenge on her father’s and grieving mother’s behalf.
Of course Haynes doesn’t know this, and he still doesn’t realize it despite Nish’s obviously uncomfortable body language when describing the torture he inflicted upon her father.
In the end, Nish takes the eye-for-an-eye approach by torturing Haynes and burning Black Museum. The conclusion of the episode left me feeling vindicated yet overwhelmingly sad. I like “Black Mirror” because the stories seem just outside the realm of possibility, but “Black Museum” was different. The horrors of “Black Museum” have happened a million times before to Black people in the United States, and these horrors still continue today.
The Black Museum would have been just as heinous if it replaced the pain sensory cap with the speculum used by James Marion Sims to experiment on Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey, enslaved women, against their will. Replacing the conscious stuffed animal with syringes used in the Tuskegee Experiment, a “study” in which white health officials lied to nearly 400 Black men about treating their syphilis, would still accurately portray a lack of informed consent from the people subject to experimentation. And while Henrietta Lacks’ cells weren’t being electrocuted, they were still used after her death without her knowledge for countless medical experiments that saved lives and made white people a lot of money, yet her family was never compensated.
Black bodies being subjected to sub par care and being regarded as less human isn’t solely a relic of the past. Right now, Black maternal mortality is at a record high; Black women are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than a white woman. Maternal mortality has claimed the lives of many Black women, including recently Erica Garner, a civil rights activists who — like Nish — wanted to see that her father received justice.
Most “Black Mirror” episodes come across as “what if this really happened?” but when watching “Black Museum” it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t a fictional cautionary tale. For Black people, it’s very real. The truth deserves to be widely told. Black people in the here and now deserve justice too.