When it comes to gangs, the Hells Angels must have a great PR team. At least, that’s Killer Mike’s take.
Despite the Angels’ association with illegal activities, among them an infamous stabbing at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in 1969, you can still go to Amazon and grab yourself a T-shirt with their logo. Why can’t gangs with predominant black membership like the Crips and the Bloods do something like that to get legitimate income?
It’s a question Killer Mike, the Atlanta rapper that partners with El-P in the increasingly famed duo Run the Jewels, attempts to answer on his new Netflix show, Trigger Warning. During “White Gang Privilege,” the third entry in the six-episode series, he reaches out to Atlanta Crips and Bloods and manufactures a soda for both sides. Crip-A-Cola for the blue guys and Blood Drop for the red guys.
Like much of the show, it collides a daring and radical point of view with the tactics of reality TV, an interesting approach that renders mixed results.
Killer Mike has been my favorite rapper for five years now. Not only because of Run the Jewels, where he and El-P make, as he calls it, “kick you in the dick” music, but also because of his brilliance outside the booth: He’s outspoken about black gun ownership (even getting in some trouble following a chat with the NRA); he’s advocated for black-owned businesses (himself owning several barber shops in Atlanta); and he was Bernie’s biggest advocate during the senator’s 2016 presidential bid.
A ton of the ideals championed by his music and public appearances make their way into the show.
The pilot explores the notion of “spending black,” as Mike decides to go three days making purchases only at black-owned businesses. Even if he’s at a black-owned restaurant, he won’t eat if the food didn’t come from black farms.
The episode even finds him sleeping on a park bench because there aren’t any black-owned hotels nearby.
That in a nutshell becomes the issue with the show. On one hand, he showcases companies like We Buy Black (essentially a Green Book cataloging black businesses that sell everything from batteries to cell phones). But then he recruits a group of really bad actors to pretend to form a “politically diverse group” and ends with a redneck guy rapping calling himself a “white n#!ger.” Moments like these are designed for comedic effect, coming across as very Love & Hip Hop/VH-1-esque.
Satire is a delicate art, especially when it’s not altogether clear who’s the butt of the joke. But Trigger Warning is often too blunt to be truly effective.
Take that Crip-A-Cola episode. Mike decides to try to get a loan for the Crips members to create a business. They walk into a black bank to ask for $100,000. The guys aren’t qualified for the loan, and they dance around the fact that they are in a gang. If a white show tried to do the same thing, there would be outrage. Such moments felt borderline exploitive and terribly contrived, embodying the worst instincts of reality TV rather than upending them.
Maybe my disappointment is the fault of my high expectations. I believe in Killer Mike as a musician and activist and wanted something different from his show. If anyone is capable of delivering a series with great conversations and eschewing reality TV bulls#!t, it’s him.
Consider, for instance, the episode titled “F#!k School,” which finds him suggesting that school is not as important as learning a trade. A timely and divisive topic, but how do you get people to pay attention? Put it in porn! Mike devises a plan to play pornographic displays of gay and heterosexual sex while showing people how to fix a drain, change a light bulb and fix a doorknob.
It’s easy to get hooked watching a classroom full of people shocked by the display. But you realize after the episode that you still don’t know how to fix your f#!king sink.