Fifty Shades of Black (2016) (IMDB) is a comedy/romance film directed by Michael Tiddes and written by Marlon Wayans and Rick Alvarez. Obviously, it’s a parody of the wildly popular Fifty Shades of Grey franchise.
Beyond just parodying Fifty Shades, Black derives comedy from juxtaposing sadomasochism, long seen as a “white thing”, with blackness.
Moon Charania’s essay “The Promise of Whiteness: Fifty Shades of Grey as White Racial Archive” in Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media (Issue 8, January 2016) hypothesizes that the book and film’s story can only work because the two leads are extremely white and heterosexual. It presents a kind of hetero-white utopia in which all the cultural anxieties of the 2000s and 2010s are almost entirely absent. Almost no non-white people means no racial violence and inequality, and almost no queer and no trans people means no challenge to the primacy of heterosexuality.
The significance of Grey’s emotional torment, Ana’s romantic attachment to Grey, and the familiarity of white heterosexual domestic love render this (attempted) violent domination both palatable and melancholic. [Pg. 84]
To excite and placate the audience, Ana and Christian as lovers and antagonists could only be white. The sudden excitement found in a powerful white man beating an empowered white woman for sexual pleasure establishes an inextricable link between racial formation and sexual subjectification. [Pg. 85]
In Charania’s view, whiteness excuses everything: Christian’s domination and sadism, Ana’s infatuation and naivete. Remove Christian’s whiteness, his wealth and privilege, from the narrative, and he’s just an abuser. Remove Ana’s whiteness, and she’s just a helpless victim. It’s not a love story anymore.
So what happens if the analogs of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, “Christian Black” (Marlon Wayans) and “Hannah Steale” (Kali Hawk), are black?
Fifty Shades of Black follows its parent film closely, including even the same shots. Much of the jokes come from making the subtext of the original into text. For example, Kateesha, Hannah’s raunchy best friend and roommate, calls out the text’s exchange of sex for material goods. Christian Grey, subtextually black in the original by his association with inner city poverty and crack cocaine, is now the explicitly black Christian Black, who made his money dealing drugs.
If only by accident, Fifty Shades of Black is actually a somewhat better story than its parody subject. Mainly because, while Christian Grey is an obnoxious controlling jerk mainly because he can, Christian Black has a glint of genuine pathos beneath all the sex jokes. Far from a “master of the universe”, he’s a deeply insecure, neurotic mess because, no matter how much wealth and power he has acquired, he’s still a black man in a racist society. He can’t even live up to the myth of black male sexual prowess. His own adoptive mother can’t help uttering a stream of racist microaggressions at him.
Christian Black’s struggle for acceptance extends into the realm of BDSM. When he first introduces Hannah to his dungeon, Hannah immediately rejects him.
Hannah: “Fuck this shit! I’m out!”
Christian: “Please, Ms. Steale. Just keep an open mind.”
Inside the red room, Hannah examines the toys.
Hannah: “You’re a sick motherfucker.”
Christian: “No, Bill Cosby’s a sick motherfucker. I’m just a dominant.”
Hannah: “What does that have to do with me?”
Christian: “I want you to give yourself to me sexually. Hence all the whips chains and freaky sex toys.”
Hannah: “And what would I get out of it?”
Hannah: (laughs deeply)
Hannah: “And women go for this?”
Christian: “Some women.”
There’s a brief series of flashbacks. First, Christian shows the dungeon to a white woman, who’s game to play, as long as her father doesn’t know she’s dating a black man. Second is a bleary-eyed, indifferent Asian woman, who just wants to “eat shit”. The third is a black woman who dumps him immediately and says he needs to “find Jesus”. It can be frustrating for a top/dominant to be either treated as a sensation dispenser, or rejected outright. There’s an additional dimension of anti-BDSM prejudice among black people.
Christian Grey wants someone who looks like his birth mother to punish. Christian Black just wants someone who will accept him as a whole. A lot of his character, such as his insistence that “I don’t date. I fuck hard.”, is a defense against being hurt.
The film solves the problem of making Christian too much of a sadist or Hannah too much of a masochist by making Christian an incompetent sadist. When Christian and Hannah actually play, the series of mishaps — Christian licks a peacock feather and gets a strand stuck on his tongue, Hannah accidentally kicks him across the room when he puts ice on her body, Christian can’t open the cuffs he put on her and has to bring in other men to release her — actually humanizes both characters, and show that BDSM doesn’t have to be perfect and serious to be good.
In another sequence, Christian tries to “punish” Hannah with a spanking, but no matter what he hits her with, she doesn’t feel a thing.
Hannah: “Don’t feel bad. I haven’t really felt anything down there since I got my butt implants.”
The impact play scenes are shot without full nudity and without closeups of impact. Forced perspective creates the impression of impact without actually seeing it.
Some of the play is a bit unsettling, as when Christian waterboards her, while others are humorous, as when Christian reads Fifty Shades of Grey (which exists in this universe?) to her while she’s blindfolded and bound.
Christian: “This is fifty shades of fucking terrible. Who wrote this, a third-grader?”
Hannah: “Please go back to the water-torture thing!”
When we finally get to the “show me the worst” scene, Christian reviews his collection of impact implements, each labeled with the title of a movie with black people being beaten: “Amistad”, “Glory”, “Roots”, “Django Unchained”, “12 Years a Slave”, and “Joe Jackson”. This elicits nervous laughter over the role of black people being tortured as spectacle in Hollywood films, usually in the context of antebellum slavery.
After a few impacts, when Christian is worn out, they stop.
Hannah: “Don’t touch me! Does it make you happy to see me like this?”
Christian: “I mean, not really. You look like a sad Gollum.”
Hannah (still in her bra and panties) switches on Christian, handcuffing him to the massage table and beating him with the same belt.
Hannah: “This is for Kerry Washington from Django Unchained! […] This is for Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years A Slave! […] All she wanted was some soap!”
Christian responds with pain.
Hannah continues whipping him while ranting about Denzel Washington crying in the whipping scene in Glory and the nudity of “the little white girl in Fifty Shades of Grey!”. Then she brings back a large silver dildo.
Hannah: “I’m about to get medieval on your ass. Welcome to my world, motherfucker!”
She shoves it at his butt. Cut to black and the sound of Christian screaming.
Hannah: “Christian, I thought you’d like it.”
Christian: “What’s there to like? What kind of sick pervert beats you for their own enjoyment?”
By now it should be obvious that Fifty Shades of Black is primarily a comedy, and definitely not instructional, so it won’t bother to address the numerous breaches of consent, or other problems.
During the reconciliation, Christian tries to negotiate with Hannah.
Hannah: “You hurt me Christian.”
Christian: “I know. But I have softer whips. You know the kind with the pink fur on it? It takes the sting off.”
Hannah: “That’s not what I’m talking about.”
Fifty Shades of Black ultimately doesn’t resolve the relationship of its leads, just as Grey puts them back together for reasons of genre rather than logic. They just do. Despite all this, it’s slightly more enlightened about BDSM than its source material, in that it foregrounds Christian’s struggle for acceptance, hindered by his own insecurity.