Crab Barrel: The Pitfalls of Critiquing work by ‘Your own people’

crabs in a barrel

“And you should love it, way mo’ than you hate it
Nigga, you mad? I thought that you’d be happy I made it?
I’m dat cat by the bar toastin’ to the good life,
You dat faggot-ass nigga tryna pull me back, right?”
– 50 Cent, “In Da Club”, Get Rich or Die Tryin’

Did you know that YouTube gets upwards of one billion users per month? Is that fascinating or is that fascinating? This one website has grown to such recognition and popularity that within the span of a single calendar month it will receive enough calculated traffic to equal a full sixth of the population of the entire world. How ‘bout that? I’m personally more fond of competitor Vimeo, but comparing the two is comparing apples and oranges.

A friend and colleague blogged about how the short subject film – the category which once made stars out of Harold Lloyd, The Three Stooges, and Bugs Bunny, to name but a few – is now such a rarity on the big screen that the mere presence of one is something of an anomaly (or a Pixar pre-show). That made me remember how short films once thrived on the untapped resource of the web in the late-‘90s/early-2000s. Sites like iFilm, AtomFilms, The Sci-Fi Channel’s Exposure (also a tv show), and Sputnik7 succeeded by giving up-and-coming film-makers a new venue. All of those sites are now defunct, having been usurped by the YouTubes, DailyMotions, and MetaCafes of world – sites less concerned with art and more with collecting as many meme-worthy videos as possible into one place. This isn’t to say the latter sites are incapable of showcasing truly great work, but it’s hard not to think of them as dumping grounds just as much as legitimate commercial outlets.

Still, with the rise serial-only sites like and original programming on Netflix and Amazon, the internet is quickly becoming THE best venue for serial storytelling. What’s more, there’s a wonderful diversity in both the stories and storytellers. Whereas before certain audiences fretted over “their story” not being told, they now have the power to tell it themselves. And as someone always on the lookout for great stories by and about Black people, it was with great interest that in January of last year I read this io9 article about the web series The Abandon by Keith Adkins. It didn’t take me long to find its first – and, as of this writing, only – episode via Adkins’ YouTube channel (watch the episode here if you can’t see the embed below):

I didn’t think much of the episode, but I figured since I was already on the page, I might as well leave a comment:

As a Black man, I applaud your getting the project produced. But as an actor, writer, director, and playwright I believe in sincere artistic feedback. As such, this is the sort of project I’d turn down.

Honestly… that was terrible. The dialogue was clunky, unrealistic, full of forced exposition and backstory. The characters were indistinguishable, save for a few shallow traits (the Gay guy, the married guy, etc.). The acting was hammy and neither the script nor direction created any tension.

Looking back on those comments, perhaps I would have phrased it differently. But I was writing what I felt at the moment. Besides, who really notices or cares about a single opinion on a website that boasts one billion active users per month? Well… apparently a lot of people. Mine was the only non-glowing comment at that point, and it seems that the folks who liked it took some sort of personal issue with my not liking it.

For a while I responded to some of the comments directed at me (responding to on-line comments being the only thing dumber than reading them) and though I kept my criticisms purely artistic, the consensus was that I as a Black man had “crab-barrelled” another brotha tryin’ to make it (the idea being that when crabs are in a barrel and one tries to climb out, another will pull it back down). And when they weren’t satisfied with comments on the video, they moved on to direct YouTube messages. This one from “Ms. Go” (then known as “DCMovieGirl”) says it all:

This is something you may not be aware of…

I can guarantee that many of the people who will upvote your original comment are/will be white people who now feel justified that network disinterest has nothing to do with race, but with quality as this “black man” attests.

So, in giving your your criticisms in the way that you have, while valid, you’ve also inadvertently become an Uncle Tom for those whites who would see no racism in the fact that projects like this aren’t picked up by networks.

It sucks, but this is the burden of blackness. You have to think beyond yourself sometimes.

If your comment becomes the most upvoted for this project, many whites, upon seeing it, especially from you, will feel justified in dismissing any artistic divergence from “types” as an issue of quality and not racism in Hollywood.

And there you have it, folks. I am the reason Blacks have no prominence in science fiction and fantasy. My one YouTube comment is THE reason why Black characters will never lead in projects like Star Wars, Blade Runner, or Alien. I alone am the reason there hasn’t been a Black superhero film since Blade. I am the guilty party who knowingly keeps studios from investing Avatar-sized money in projects by Black film-makers. Yup, li’l ole me. I am the crustacean that’s keepin’ our people down.

Look at this fool - shuckin' and jivin' for the White Man!!

Look at this fool – shuckin’ and jivin’ for the White Man!!

Once I came out of my laughing fit from reading Ms. Go’s asinine fantasy, I tried in vain to once again explain reality to her and commenters-in-arms. I soon gave up. I almost never log into YouTube these days – now that they’re forcing Google+ and new restrictions down our throats – but I still occasionally receive new Inbox notices from Abandon fans who read my comments and feel the need to “educate” me about how I, as a Black man, “should know better”.

Bullshit. If anything, that’s precisely why my critique should be both sincere and direct.

Before I return to the topic of Keith Adkins and his budding web series, I’d like to talk about artistic criticism. Or rather, I’d like to talk about the perception of artistic criticism. You see, proper art criticism requires an extensive knowledge of the medium being reviewed: pioneers in the field, tools and technology used, historical and sociological context, knowledge of genres, sub-genres, merged genres, knowledge of the artist him/herself, etc. Art critics bask in the knowledge of their chosen subject – both its past and present – because they understand that they are part of the artistic process. They hold art to a standard. They’ve seen the best the medium has to offer and have made it their quest to find – their dream – to encounter something of that quality again.

That’s what they do. How they’re perceived is a different story. To the public and many butt-hurt so-called “artists”, critics are a necessary evil at best, party-poopers at worst. From Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and This is Spinal Tap to Jamie Kennedy’s “documentary” Heckler and the tv show Nurse Jackie, art critics are seen as the enemies of art – or, at the very least, the artist. There are far too many examples for me to cite here, but we all know the popular narrative: The Artist is, by his very nature, the voice of the people and The Critic is, either by choice or consequence, the voice of sinister forces that would silence the people.

Now the idea of an intentionally malicious critic isn’t so far-fetched (hell, Armond White seems to treat film criticism as Dadaist performance art). But the idea that criticism itself exists solely as a means to bully poor little artists is, and always has been, a fantasy with no basis in reality. It’s the kind of fantasy that makes multi-millionaire screenwriters go on fansites to lash out at their key demographic. It’s the kind of thinking that inspires Anne Rice to have her fans attack an anonymous teenage blogger because said blogger didn’t like one of her books. It’s the kind of thinking that would have you believe that simply putting out work puts you beyond reproach and that anyone who doesn’t like it should be lynched.

I’ve never seen the show RuPaul’s Drag Race, but my friend Cody is a fan. It being a competition show, the competitors are subject to scrutiny by the show’s judges and the viewers. When one competitor took on-line criticism the wrong way and pointed the finger at fans, Cody – in all of his lucid wisdom and artistic experience – wrote a blog entry with the following bullet points:

1 – You are an artist. An artist cannot control his or her audience. You want people to talk about your work, good or bad. If you do not, you are a hobbyist.

2 – Rupauls Drag Race is entertainment. This is what Reality TV is. Don’t confuse yourself by assuming that just because you’re playing yourselves, there aren’t producers manipulating the strings to create the common archetypes of fiction: the hero, the villain, the anti-hero, the maiden, the princess, the unicorn, the peasant, the king, the audience, the buffoon, the tragedy, and the romance.

3 – You know what you are getting into. The world of Drag is small. It is a small niche in a small sub culture in a large world. You know those that have gone on screen before you. Regardless if you are slapped with an NDA to not talk about it, you have heard countless stories of what happens once that green light on the camera turns on.

I swear to God, if it were up to me, those three rules would hang from the wall of every performance school, art school, theatre, gallery, and learning annex all over the world. When you put your work out in the world, it will be scrutinised by the public. That’s just as true of critics as it is of that which they review. Critique is inextricably linked with journalism and must therefore always represent a high standard. When a lowering of standards becomes apparent in a news outlet or in regards to coverage of a specific medium they will be taken to task.

Hell, I know one art critic so beholden to her standards that she had no problem panning in which she herself was featured.

I’m a scientific person and a level of science is required in the technical side of criticism, hence the link with journalism and necessary knowledge of history. Science requires theories that adapt themselves to facts, not the other way around. Now that’s a tricky thing when looking art, because its power stems from that most subjective of factors: Emotion. I’ve recommended plenty of technically inept products because I found them highly enjoyable, and I’ve taken in many technically dazzling products that left no emotional resonance.

In this Age of Information, wider access to technology has opened up non-scientific criticism to wider audiences. If you don’t like the style of a professional critic, you can always turn to opinion of a non-professional whose opinion will likely neither challenge nor enlighten you. But that’s democracy for you: everyone has, and is entitled to, their own opinion. When you deal in a medium that is defined by the affect it leaves on people, don’t be surprised if said affect is not to your liking.

Most of the performance work I do here in the Bay Area is theatre. Recently a show by an internationally-reknowned playwright (let’s call him “Salty”, after Veruca Salt) opened here to wide critical acclaim and successful box office. A friend of mine, a gifted playwright herself (let’s call her “Elinor Dashwood”), wrote a review of the show on her personal blog. Elinor’s review was even-handed and articulate, with her explaining why she didn’t enjoy this show as much as she had his earlier work. Salty happened across her review and, like Anne Rice and Robert Orci, decided to take issues directly to her FB page for all of us to see. Salty insisted that she “didn’t get it”, gave the play a “quick and easy dismissal”, and should “go back and see the play again” to pick up all the subtext her pretty little head might have missed.

“Woe is me.”

Elinor responded with her characteristic poise and common sense as Salty spent the next few days insisting that Elinor’s opinion was invalid because it came from a single viewing. Although I didn’t comment on the thread, I read and re-read Salty’s comments and thought “If her single-viewing opinion doesn’t matter, shouldn’t we also dismiss the opinions of those who saw it once and loved it?” Does her in-review admission to being a fan of his earlier work lose credibility? Salty – who claimed to never respond to critics before this – had insulted his most devout fans because he couldn’t take the slightest criticism.

What’s more: Salty, who is an openly Gay writer. I wonder if he thought that the hetero Elinor failed to understand the piece – which deals with LGBTQ themes – because she has no idea what it’s like to inhabit the skin of someone like him? This would have little to do with the fault she found in his story, but if true, it wouldn’t be the first time one has suggested that work produced by and relating to specific groups should only be reviewed by members of said groups. Sure, why not – let’s all stick to our own. Because we all know “our own people” always have our best interests at heart, right?

by Aaron MacGruder

by Aaron MacGruder

I really like that comic panel. I always have. To this day I’ve yet to come across any other quote or interview that so perfectly states my own thoughts on why I’m actually more critical with a piece of “Black art” than most others. It’s the same thing a Gay friend of mine has often said about when the Andy Cohen regime took over Bravo, turning it from a channel of art and culture to the place that makes Queer Eye and Real Housewives. It’s what Hispanics have said about nuvoTV (formerly Sí TV). It’s what’s often been said about Lifetime and WEtv. And yes, it’s what I and many others have said about BET since the late-‘90s.

We’re all people who rarely see “people like us” in mainstream media, unless it’s demeaning. So you’d think that once we got our own media outlet it would make quality product a priority. The channels above do the opposite: they cater to the lowest common denominators and hide behind the shield of diversity. I love trash, but don’t try to tell me it’s treasure.

And God forbid you ever try to criticise them, especially amongst your own. There’s a reason I opened this blog entry with those lyrics by 50 Cent, a formerly broke millionaire who makes money by objectifying women on-camera and beating them/threatening to kill them off-camera. But to criticise him is to, as I’ve always been told, “givin’ Whitey ammunition not to invest in Black folks.” That obviously isn’t true because they likely weren’t all that interested in funding us anyway.

Other common retorts, especially about Black tv, include “I can remember a time when there weren’t ANY Black folks on tv,” I often hear. Well, that’s no longer the case, so how long do we have to wait for shows that are good? “They [being whomever is successful and Black on television] made it; give ‘em credit.” I give them full credit for coming out of poverty or whatever previous condition to build a fortune. That doesn’t mean I have to like their current work any more than that of a drug dealer who could claim the same thing. In fact, let’s address the cross-dressing elephant in the room, shall we?

Who'd you think I meant? Flip Wilson?

Who’d you think I meant? Flip Wilson?

I know Tyler Perry came from a background that not only included poverty, but childhood sexual abuse. I know he’s spent the past decade becoming the most consistently lucrative Black film-maker ever. Still, I’m not the first person to express disappointment with Tyler Perry and I sure as hell won’t be the last. But God forbid you be White and try to say something bad about him, you’ll be labeled a racist so fast, it’ll make your head spin. Like Joss Whedon before him, Perry has created a cult of personality (Black churchgoers) that will defend him with a vengeance. Add in the sensitive element of his race, and he has to reveal himself as a moral hypocrite in order for White critics to pan his work without fear of racial backlash.

Why? Don’t we want to be taken as seriously as White folks? Don’t we want our work to be regarded just as importantly? Because if we do, then we can’t get all up in arms just because they don’t automatically like what we put out – and a lot of “our” stuff can be shit. We have to seek out quality over quantity. Celebrate the work of up-and-comers like Awkward Black Girl creator and the folks at Black & Sexy TV. Never stop seeking out new material, but understand that it doesn’t get a free pass just because it puts more of “us” out there.

Black & Sexy TV. Black web series done right.

Black & Sexy TV. Black web series done right.

One of the best on-line reviews I’ve ever read was about Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. I love Spike’s films, but that is a film that relies on shock value more than compelling storytelling. That’s why I love Boondocks creator Aaron MacGruder’s infamous on-line “review” on the OkayPlayer messageboards. (Yes, I’ve been on the internet so long, I was a member of OkayPlayer. Wonder if my password still works?) MacGruder took a high-standard artist to task, just as we all did when MacGruder and now-Oscar-winner John Ridley wrote the mediocre Red Tails.

That’s how critique works. It doesn’t mean it’s personal.

Which brings me, at long last, to Keith Adkins. What can I tell you about Keith Josef Adkins, writer/director/producer of The Abandon? I’ve never met the man personally, but I did some digging around on the interwebs. Well, I know that he’s been a professional writer and actor in Hollywood for over a decade. I know that he wrote a play called The Last Saint on Sugar Hill that did very well. I know he used to used to write for a website that I read daily. Hell, from those things, I can tell you that he has a career I would love to have.

I can also tell you that he’s very interactive with viewers on The Abandon’s YouTube page. Mainly responding to compliments and tech questions, he noticeably has not responded to my critical comment. He hasn’t responded to those with whom I conversed either. Whenever I get a new notice about that film, I speculate as to why he hasn’t responded. Maybe he read my comments, got offended, and has just been biding his time as to when he’ll respond. Maybe he thinks the people with whom I argued did a well enough job for him. Maybe he read my comments, took them to heart, and has been spending this past year working to improve the show before he releases a new episode (it could happen).

Or maybe – just maybe – he doesn’t care. Maybe he knows that my comment was literally 1/billion and he shrugged it off before getting on with his life. The man has been in the game a while now, surely he’s developed a thick skin. I’d like to think he has. I’d like to think I would. Because, believe it or not, what drew me to seek out The Abandon was probably the same thing that inspired him to create it: our inner Carl Brandon. Keith and I were both Black kids who grew up watching, reading, and loving sci-fi. Eventually we – like Octavia Butler before us – noticed that the aliens were every shade but ours. But we hoped one day someone would be.

Keith Adkins did more than hope; he actually did something about it. He wrote something. He produced it. He released it… and I didn’t like it. It doesn’t turn me off to his work, it just makes me hope he’ll do better next time. I sincerely do.

Pilot episodes are hard. It has to set up its own compelling story, but keep audiences hungry for more. The best pilot episode ever is “Space Pilot 3000” from Futurama. It’s a self-contained short story that didn’t need any further development, but the world it showed was so rich that we wanted to know more. Plus it dropped little hints of a larger story yet to be understood. I say this as a guy who hated the pilot episodes of The Sopranos, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Deadwood – shows I wound up loving dearly. Still, it’s hard to stay for the whole meal if you don’t like the first bite.

History is filled with many great works of art that weren’t exactly beloved when they first appeared. Others were just as bad as originally thought (except for Clue – why is that on the list?). Every artist wants to make the best he or she can. Every critic wants to see something that exceeds their expectations. Searching for those things will require sifting through a lot of crap. But it’s that sifting through crap in search of greatness that makes us so proud to be artists. Otherwise this is just a hobby.

Nothing but the best. Image by John Jude Palencar

Nothing but the best. Image by John Jude Palencar


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