While the latest season of Black Mirror begins with actress Michaela Coel’s character being turned into a space alien monster for sticking up for a white woman (a most likely unintentional ode to every black woman in the workplace), it actually manages to end on a rather good note for black women. With Black Mirror, we are always asked to believe in a world where our rapidly developing technology is our biggest adversary. It’s almost never a world in which we would want to live. Yet with this season’s finale, “Black Museum,” we are treated to the opposite: a reality that, maybe, we would actually want.
“Black Museum” opens with Nish (Letitia Wright, in the upcoming Black Panther movie) driving up in her newfangled-made-to-look-old car to a car-charging station. After surveying the vacant desert town and assessing the three-hour charge her car will take, she notices an attraction across the way: the Black Museum. All of the usual “don’t go in there” horror movie senses start tingling instantly.
The museum run by Rolo Haynes (Douglas Hodge), a shifty, white man, is filled with old gadgets gone bad from Black Mirror’s past. The mask from the episode “White Bear” is there, the bathtub from “Crocodile” is in a case, the tablet from “Arkangel” is prominently displayed. Even a mugshot of the series’ production designer Joel Collins can be spotted among the collection.
Rolo brings Nish’s attention to two pieces of technology that he created when he used to run a medical tech company. The first is a helmet that transfers the pain and symptoms a person is feeling to a doctor who has a synced-up implant. (The doctor wouldn’t feel any of the actual consequences of the ailments; it was designed to help doctors make more accurate diagnoses than they were getting from patients’ descriptions of pain alone.) But the doctor in Rolo’s story wound up addicted to the sensation of death; and ultimately murders someone viciously to get his fix.
The second is a stuffed monkey that holds the disconnected soul of a person. Rolo explains that he developed the ability to take the consciousness out of a comatose person and place that consciousness in an underused part of another person’s brain. The experiment was intended to help prolong and preserve the life of someone. However the “host” quickly began to feel trapped with no privacy and a loss of freedom. Rolo developed the technology further finding a way to place the consciousness into a stuffed monkey. The experiment was deemed inhumane and shut down.
Finally, Rolo brings Nish to the museum’s main attraction, the third “thing” he created. He pulls back a red curtain and reveals the hologram of a vegetated black man dressed in an orange prison inmate jumpsuit drooling in a corner. It’s the hologram of Clayton Leigh a black man who was sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit.
Nish is intrigued but clearly growing uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Rolo has become increasingly hot and sick. He explains to Nish that he convinced Clayton to let him take his soul for his exhibition but did not fully disclose what he’d do with his hologram soul once he had it.
It’s here where the thread running through each of these mini stories within a story starts to become clear. Each of these stories work together to ask a crucial question of the audience: At whose expense are we willing to be successful, entertained, or even alive?
What did Rolo do? He turned the prisoner into a roadside attraction where thousands of people would come and reenact his execution time after time with the press of a button. Wealthy white men would pay Rolo to hold the lever down longer just for the thrill of it. One man holds the lever down too long rendering the hologram a drooling vegetable.
Unlike most episodes in Black Mirror, this one hasn’t taken us completely away from our present reality — a reality where 6.8 million people make up the correctional population, and of that, 56 percent are black or Hispanic. This was a difficult scene to watch because the image of a black man in an orange jumpsuit gradually becoming less and less of himself isn’t fiction. It’s one we’ve seen far too often. And the taunting question returns: at whose expense? It’s been argued that our prison industrial complex frighteningly hearkens back to a time where the entirety of a black person’s existence in America was for the benefit of white America, back to slavery.
Then Nish reveals her own secret: She’s the inmate’s daughter. She has come to avenge his soul, since that’s all that remains. Using Rolo’s device against him, she turns the electrocution dial as high as it’ll go, zapping her father and Haynes away together forever.
Back in her car, she retreats inside her own mind. Viewers learn then that Nish’s mother has been living inside of her head — that her mother was also one of Rolo’s victims, and it was his technology that planted her consciousness in her daughter’s brain. Her mother applauds her efforts and she drives off into the sunset with the Black Museum and everything in it burning down in her wake.
The first story about the doctor leaves you distrusting science despite its advances, someone has to make a sacrifice. The second story makes you wonder how far you’d go to preserve a person for your own sake. Those two leading into the third drive the point home that in each instance, in our actual reality, black bodies have been the sacrificed, the inappropriately tested with, and finally the wrongfully murdered again and again.
But in “Black Museum,” we get to see a world, that yes, was riddled with nightmarish medical experiments, but also allowed black people to receive justice. Finally. We are given a version of reality where a young black woman, who has made it her life’s work to fight in her wrongfully killed father’s honor, actually wins.
Usually, I can breathe a breath of relief when the painfully terrifying reality of a Black Mirror episode ends, but with this I’d give anything to stay there, watching that knowing smirk on Nish’s face, just a bit longer.