Chida Rebecca, California Black Media
The Netflix series #blackAF ended its first season this spring, but its episodes live on, accessible to anyone who wants to watch them on the digital streaming service.
It stars Kenya Barris, creator of critically acclaimed Black-ish (and its spinoffs Grown-ish and Mixed-ish), as a fictionalized version of himself. Barris and his co-stars in #blackAF uncover the “messy, unfiltered, and often hilarious world of what it means to be a ‘new money’ Black family trying to ‘get it right’ in a modern world where ‘right’ is no longer a fixed concept.”
In episode two of #blackAF, parents Kenya and Joya (Rashida Jones) decide to attend a festival where they seek to relive their twenties, deciding to go for a Molly do-over after a non-eventful first experience with the drug.
Though rich in satire, that episode —- like the others — presents 2020’s African American family life as frenzied, hyper-honest and decidedly untraditional.
Maybe #blackAF’s aim is to get as close to reality TV as possible in its spoofing of Black Hollywood’s rich and famous. But even if it is just exaggerating faux-reality, uncensored drug use on the show still raises the question of how much responsibility media companies should bear when they jazz up their story lines with dangerous behavior for the sake of authenticity, comedic relief or dramatic effect.
“The responsibility we have as Black artists is the same as a doctor, a lawyer, a business leader or educator: To uplift our community,” said Rickerby Hinds, professor and chair of the Department of Theater and Digital Production at the University of California Riverside.
“And while that may sound like a cliché, it has proven to be the formula for the success of other communities,” said Hinds. “If we continue to “get mine” and get out, then our communities will continue to be the most affected by negative issues.”
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “[Molly or] 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) is a synthetic drug.”
Initially popular on the nightclub scene, Molly (slang for molecular) is “chemically similar to both stimulants and hallucinogens, producing feelings of increased energy, pleasure, emotional warmth, and distorted sensory and time perception.”
NIDA adds that “MDMA increases the activity of three brain chemicals” by producing increased activity and acts in the reward system to reinforce behaviors (Dopamine); it increases heart rate and blood pressure — which is especially problematic for individuals with heart and blood vessel problems (Norepinephrine); and it affects appetite, mood, sleep patterns, and other functions, triggering hormones that affect sexual arousal and trust. The release of the large amounts of (Serotonin) likely causes the emotional closeness, elevated mood, and empathy felt by those who use MDMA,” the NIDA adds.
Molly, the powdery substance, is usually sold in capsules. Sometimes dealers mix in other dangerous drugs like the deadly synthetic opioid Fentanyl, which is also used to lace marijuana cigarettes and other drugs. The death rate from Fentanyl overdoses is rising fastest among African Americans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF).
Though blackAF’s second episode begins with Kenya and Joya’s emphatic opposition to drug use, they end up sauntering into their musical night out – VIP style and high “AF.” The evening culminates with Joya being escorted out of the festival on an ambulance gurney.
The show may have been entertaining, but experts say the reality is this: In “real life,” individuals battling depression and desiring escapism can become subliminally intrigued by even lighthearted portrayals of drug use — and they may become curious about its enjoyable effects.
This is also true for opioid use.
Because of the increasing prevalence of Opioid use — due in part to people who voluntarily take them at first and then become addicted — over the last few years, the federal government as well as states around this country and community-based organizations have been placing emphasis on curbing the abuse of that particular class of prescription drugs.
“The impact of opioid use in the Black community has been under-reported,” says Dr. Lenore Tate, a Sacramento-based psychologist who operates a private practice.
“Although the rate of opioid use is higher for Whites than it is for Blacks, death rates from opioid abuse and overdoses have been steadily increasing in the Black community for the past five years,” says Tate, who has served as a consultant to the California Legislature on public health.
According to the Addiction Center, Molly has served as a gateway drug for 92% of its first-time users ushering them to using other substances including marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin, one of the most well-known opioids.
Whether it’s MDMAs like Molly; opioids like Percocet, OxyContin or Vicodin — or other harmful drugs, substance abuse continues to rise in the United States.
Across the United States in 2018, more than 10 million Americans misused opioids, according the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About 67,000 people around the country died from overdoses.
In California, there were a total of 2,199 opioid overdose deaths in 2017, according to data compiled by the KFF, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Center for Health Statistics. Blacks accounted for 147 of those fatalities; Hispanics, 483; and White deaths totaled 1,397.
Opioid abuse also contributes to the high rate of homelessness in California, the highest in the United States, according to the California Department of Public Health.
With such staggering statistics, shouldn’t the world of entertainment use more discretion with the content it creates?
Tate points out that the media may present an image with only “a kernel of truth,” but that may be enough to “subtly distort reality” for some viewers who might associate a specific group with those “shared attributes or characteristics.”
From negative portrayals of Blacks in America’s first 3-reel silent film, “The Birth of a Nation,” and similarly controversial depictions in 1970s era Blaxploitation films to violent “gangster rap” videos of the 1980s and the reality TV explosion of the 1990s until now, some experts say the media has been a major force in shaping how Blacks are viewed by the American public.
“The media has historically had a significant impact in contributing to racism through reinforcing negative stereotypes, glamorizing substance abuse, sexuality and criminal activity,” Tate explains.
For content creators like Tamera Hill, a San Diego based screenwriter, producer, and director, the power of the creative pen carries a lot of weight and should not be taken lightly.
“A writer’s purpose is to persuade, inform, and entertain. I’ve always treated the gift of writing as an oath to God and my community,” she said.
“We have a plethora of platforms now and our voices can be heard,” Hill continued. “I choose not to waste it on frivolous stories that do not build, encourage, or inspire. Media is a powerful tool. Our words turn into images and affect culture and trends in our community. We are responsible.”
Instead of leaving the substance abuse prevention messaging to Hollywood, programs like the MAT (Medication Assisted Treatment) Access Points Project are educating individuals about the dangers and prevalence of opioid use.
The public awareness campaign titled “Choose Change California” provides information on opioid use disorder and a list of centers across the state where people addicted to opioids can go for Medication Assisted Treatment and community-based wraparound services. The campaign is a collaboration operated by Sacramento- and Fresno-based The Center at Sierra Health Foundation and funded through the California Department of Public Health MAT Expansion Project.