The rapper delivers a brash, uncompromising look at political and racial issues in both America and the black community in his Netflix series, but leaves something to be desired.
If you saw a soft drink at the grocery store called "Crip-a-Cola" that was produced in a Crip trap house, would you buy it?
That's just the question rapper and Run the Jewels MC Michael "Killer Mike" Render asks in an episode of his new Netflix series Trigger Warning. In the episode, Killer Mike examines the privilege of white street gangs like the Hell's Angels compared to black street gangs like the Bloods and Crips; the privilege being that the Hells Angels can make money off their brand whilst black street gangs can't and don't. This leads Mike to approach an Atlanta Crips crew with a plan to sell their own soda.
In Trigger Warning, Killer Mike delivers a brash, brutally honest and righteous take on the political and social tension in America and the black community — much like the rhymes his fans are familiar with him dropping. Throughout, Mike takes on sacred cows like societal attitudes toward the black church and black capitalism. Much of it speaks to the broader point Mike hammers home: "Kill Your Masters," an ethic of individualism and community that rejects authority.
In the first episode of the series, Mike challenges himself to consume products sold only at black-run businesses for 36 hours. This turns out to be more difficult than expected even in a Mecca of black culture like Atlanta. He can't even eat at a local barbecue joint because the pork didn't come from a black-owned farm and he can't buy weed since it was presumably grown by white people in California. It's an experience that leaves him longing for the heyday of black commerce that his parents and grandparents enjoyed. It's part of the show's objective to honestly discuss the issues facing the black community. It's also strongly connected to Killer Mike's desire to educate white audiences on real black history, especially those in his own fanbase.
So much of what makes it a worthwhile watch are the authentic conversations Mike has with folks. He discusses, for example, how the black church has too often failed the community and the need to create a new black spirituality that recognizes the beauty and excellence of black people. It's valuable to see these sort of topics talked about when such issues are rarely analyzed honestly in the mainstream media.
The series has an unmistakable resemblance to Comedy Central's Nathan For You — just a more politically-charged version of. It's filled with the same reality TV, mockumentary vibe, with cringey situations, and absurd social experiments that criticize cultural norms. In one episode, Mike invites an eclectic group consisting of a white nationalist, a Juggalo, a Black Lives Matter activist, a Jewish Renaissance fair aficionado, and a Native American Moor to perform a song before an RTJ show. During the recording session, the white nationalist refers to himself as a "white N-word" leading to a heated discussion about the use of the word. Later on, the white nationalist says it before an audience of hundreds, quickly silencing the crowd. The on-screen awkwardness is palpable.
These moments just add to the show's absurd nature.
Still, Trigger Warning leaves something to be desired. It's often provocative just for the sake of being provocative. The scene of the white nationalist blurting out the N-word is one case of this. It's done to shock viewers and contains no bigger lesson than "people on political extremes will say offensive things sometimes."
Sometimes the point he's attempting to make falls flat either because it's confusing or it lacks the political power typical of the rapper and political activist. Often, it comes off as reality TV, but it's not clear if it's done so to satirize the medium. In the final episode, Mike creates a fake new country called New Africa to protest the political divisions in America. It's an ambitious idea to discuss the legacy of black nationalism in the black community, but ends up as an uninspiring call for unity. One can't help but find these calls for unity coming off empty in the current political environment. His criticisms of the education system goes no further than: schools don't prioritize vocational skills enough. There's nothing about the inequities in school funding or public school privatization.
Killer Mike knocks it out of the park in some episodes with a frank look at hard-hitting issues in black America with his usual swaggering and uncompromising attitude. Other times, the show lacks a clear direction with muddled political and social commentary, but has a few provocative scenes to keep the audience entertained for 25 minutes. It's certainly something fans of Run The Jewels would enjoy checking out, and overall it's a unique entry into the Netflix original nonfiction canon.
Dan is a writer and occasional optimist. You can follow on Twitter @danescalona77.
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