I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the black web series field, which is actually a lot broader than most would assume. Of course, everyone watches Issa Rae's Awkward Black Girl series, and everyone besides Michaela watches Black&SexyTV, which I'm constantly subscribing and unsubscribing from, largely depending on how many shirtless Drake-wannabes are leading men in any given month (looking at you, Andra Fuller and Austen Jaye.) There are also the up-and-coming cult classics like An African City, The Unwritten Rules and Between Women, which is basically the lesbian equivalent of Noah's Arc—main differences: the thug fetish is kinda replaced by a bi-sexual stripper fetish, and there’s better writing (which, let's face it, isn't exactly an incredible feat.)
While all of these webisodes are super important to me and my blackness (and womanhood and etc.), I’ve often felt like there should be space in the scene for something a bit “deeper,” to use hotep speak. Now, I’m not trying to say that every black show should feel burdened to talk about our communal social issues, because it sometimes ends up feeling really forced (Lee Daniels/Empire.) I’m a firm believer in black people being allowed to have their Big Bang Theories and Modern Families. However, when I think about even the most lighthearted conversations I have with my friends, there’s still a remnant of something more serious.
This is only amplified with my friends who happen to be black grits. While black humor in other regions seems to hinge on a temporary escape from racism, there’s no form of escape in the South. Throughout our region, our safe spaces—whether they are churches, schools, or entire islands—are attacked in a way that always puts us on the defensive. Our humor, then, is less about putting aside our oppression, and more about subverting it. As a result, many of us have a super dry approach to comedy, much of it based in the practices of reclaiming derogative terms and also including our very likely discrimination in our jokes. I didn’t know this wasn’t something everyone did until basically last week, when I was telling my roommate how much of a mulatto she was, only to realize she was legitimately offended. (She’s from DC, and had never heard the term outside of historical films, let alone in a joking manner.)
I love Ackee & Saltfish, the short film (and online miniseries) from British director Cecile Emeke, because she and the actors completely get this dark humorist approach to the black experience. The mixture of lightheartedness and intellectualism seems just right for collegiate and college-adjacent black girls who claim inherently problematic hometowns.
The main characters, Rachel and Olivia, are never able to turn off their double-consciousness, even when they’re just trying to get some ackee & saltfish (West Indian fam/those of y’all able to cook would give a much better explanation of the dish than I can, so someone help out in the comments section) in their rapidly gentrifying London neighborhood. I’m really jealous of how the two friends seamlessly fluctuate between joking about Solange and quoting bell hooks, and also how Emeke doesn’t sacrifice artistic legitimacy to make a social statement. The believability of Rachel and Olivia’s casual banter (I'm convinced the actors, Vanessa Babirye and Michelle Tiwo, are best friends in real life) remains intact throughout the series, as does the camera’s attention to small moments, whether that be the print on a certain book Olivia is reading, or the smug grins of mostly-white customers in a newly erected coffee shop. To me, this commitment to form, characterization, and story is what keeps Ackee & Saltfish from feeling overwrought with consciousness—what keeps it just as relatable as That Guy and Issa Rae.
This kind of balancing act of wit and consciousness is representative of all of Cecile Emeke’s work, specifically her Strolling series, which Michaela is going to talk about eventually. I think this focus of Emeke's is super important, because it creates a cinematic experience that mirrors the real-life ones of many Diasporic young-adults today. While there are obviously tons of differences between European black culture and Southern black culture that we can definitely talk about sometime, I think their similarities are also super important. Most people don’t get our grit, and I think we should all be supporting the spaces and projects that do.
To watch Ackee & Saltfish, click here.
To watch Strolling, click here.
For more on Cecile Emeke and her work, click here.