Sam Levinson and Blackness: Did the white man get it right?

By Hadera McKay, Opinion Editor

BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) nominated writer, producer, and director of the hit HBO show “Euphoria,” Sam Levinson has faced controversy at all levels of his career. From his 2018 satire film, “Assassination Nation,” which the Los Angeles Times called an ugly exploitation of sexual violence in a hollow quest to indict the way our culture pathologizes female sexuality,” to his portrayal of graphic sex scenes and drug use in the lives of fictional teenagers in “Euphoria,” Levinson has become one of the most controversial media creators of the last few years. 

In “Euphoria” alone there are issues with the constant nudity of the character, Cassie, played by Sydney Sweeney. Cassie’s constant nudity, as a female character who upholds the traditional Western eurocentric beauty standard, seems like a suspicious directorial decision. Fans have also questioned the treatment of Kat’s storyline, played by Barbie Ferreira. Ferreira pushed back against Levinson’s intended direction for Kat’s story, a direction that many fans are speculating was rooted in his encouragement of Ferreira to portray an eating disorder. Not to mention the casual depiction of pedophilia to viewers in observance of the relationship between Jules, played by Hunter Schaffer, and Cal, played by Eric Dane. 

Nonetheless, on this Black History Month, I thought it was time to critique Sam Levinson and “Euphoria” in a way that very few have before– analyzing his use and portrayal of Blackness. 

Even though I’d watched the first season of “Euphoria” upon its release, Levinson’s consistent use of Black themes and culture didn’t become clear to me until the release of 2021’s “Malcolm & Marie.” 

The film follows an argument spanning the entire night between filmmaker Malcolm, played by John David Washington, and his longtime girlfriend Marie, played by Zendaya. The disagreement ensues after Malcolm fails to thank Marie at his film premiere. Throughout the night, Malcolm relays his frustration at being a Black filmmaker faced with “Karens from the L.A. Times,” who spend their time heavily politicizing Black films instead of accepting them as representations of multi-faceted Black storytelling.

I left the film feeling seen—like Levinson had perfectly articulated the feeling of being a Black creator in the age of white, Twitter-using social justice warriors, and white women toting around bags with ACAB written on the side, but clutching those same bags at the sight of a Black man. I’m not a filmmaker, but I am a storyteller, and I know the experience of feeling like all of your work (and maybe even existence) is constantly politicized and categorized as a form of education for the uneducated white masses. My question immediately following my viewing of the movie was, exactly how did this white man get it right? 

In an interview with Stephanie Allain, award winning Black film producer of movies like “Boyz N the Hood” and “Hustle and Flow” (arguably some of the most canonically Black films of the last thirty years), Allain praised Sam for the authenticity of the Blackness in the film. 

Levinson granted all of this authenticity to the power of collaborative storytelling, saying, “It’s why diversity is such an important aspect of filmmaking; because it’s this collision of identity, of gender, of orientation. It’s all of our experiences coming together and clashing and questioning one another in the hopes that out of that rises something that feels universal and honest.” 

Of course, Levinson fell under fire from critics about his use of Black characters to relay a story loosely inspired by his own failure to thank his wife after winning an award. Rue’s character in Euphoria is also inspired by Levinson’s struggle with drug addiction

It got me thinking, could Levinson only write multi-dimensional Black characters if they were based on his own struggles? Was his empathy for the Black experience conditional? If so, what does that say about allyship and storytelling in general? Isn’t the point of representing Black people in the spectrum of experiences that they exist in to relay the universality of Black stories, not the proximity to whiteness? 

There is something unsettlingly problematic about a white man projecting his struggles onto a Black figure. In Euphoria, this manifests in ways that seem inconsistent to some Black viewers. Twitter erupted with commentary on the idea that Rue’s mom isn’t “Black enough” because she didn’t give Rue the immediate ass-whooping we all would have gotten for slamming the door in our mama’s house. 

It’s important for viewers to understand that Black people are not a monolith and that there is room for representations of Black women, and Black mothers specifically, as pillars of quiet strength and patience that manifest different forms of discipline and respect from their children. 

However, it is also important for Levinson to honor that because Rue is mixed with a Black mother, her relationship to Blackness is going to be different— just by the nature of that specific experience. Her identity as a Black mixed person cannot be isolated from the story Levinson seeks to tell through her other various identities as a drug addict, as a person with various mental health diagnoses, as a queer person, and as a teenager. 

I cannot discuss Blackness in Euphoria without mentioning our lone dark-skinned character from season one, McKay. On my second watch, McKay’s cookie cutter character as a Black male athlete who got a scholarship to play ball for college seemed too easy and stereotypical. 

Yet, with McKay’s character Levinson also explores the toll of neglected mental health of Black male student athletes. He looks into the generational pressure to succeed that exists in Black families, and the truth of what happens when the idea of Black masculinity is linked to the rejection of emotion for the sake of success in white spaces. 

With all of this being said, there is something very alluring about the way Levinson lets Black culture seep into his projects. From the inclusion of Black colloquialisms spontaneously ad-libbed by Zendaya and John David Washington in the final cut of Malcolm and Marie, to Rue’s dreamscape of a church full of worshiping Black people whose music-based service led by a soulful organ and Labrinth’s pleading voice parrot back to the importance of Black churches as centers of community and hope during slavery; it all feels suspiciously…good. There is a fine line between emulation and appropriation, and Levinson is teetering on the edge. 

Is it the collaborative nature of his storytelling or a projection of his white male struggles as the method for creating multidimensional Black characters? Is it an appreciation for the depth and beauty of Black culture, or cultural exploitation for the sake of white views (cause we all know they wanna be Black anyway)? Either way, Levinson is attracting and keeping Black viewers, and his art is pressuring us to have nuanced conversations about something that white critics are too eager to make solely black and white.