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An Audio Describer Responds to “On Black Panther Audio Description — Race, Selection & Time”

Posted in Op-Ed

Earlier this month, Thomas Reid released the latest episode of his Reid My Mind Radio podcast, “On Black Panther Audio Description — Race, Selection & Time.” He offers a thorough, multifaceted critique of audio description in the blockbuster Black Panther and mainstream cinema as a whole. As an audio description freelancer, I have a lot of thoughts about this episode—the majority of which can roughly be summed up as, “Yes, yes, good, good, thumbs up emoji.” I’ll try to be more articulate in the post below.

But before I even attempt that, I encourage you all to head over to Reid My Mind and give the episode a listen or a read. It’s about a 13 and ½ minute listen or a near 2000 word read.

This episode pushes forward discussions about audio description from “is it included?” to “is it quality work?” This is something I am quite passionate about as a freelancer who regularly works herself into fits of anxiety about the quality of my own audio description work. As my mother, the recipient of many of my harried phone calls, can attest.

While said phone calls revolve largely around my own ability as an audio describer, Reid goes beyond thinking about individual audio description professionals. He broadens the conversation to critique the audio description industry as a whole. Although we approach audio description from two different perspectives, I found we share many of the same concerns about the field.

One of the first issues Reid brings up is the choice of narrators for Black Panther’s AD and the effect this choice has on audiences: “Trying to remain in the dream nation of Wakanda was impossible when we’re being shaken awake by the narrator who by all accounts was a British White man.” This created a different viewing experience for AD users. As Reid says, “The vibe of this movie was unapologetically Black. For those of us watching with Audio Description, well the vibe wasn’t the same.” The last thing audio description should do is create a lesser film. It shouldn’t jolt people out of the scene, but immerse them further.

Casting a white man with a British accent to describe Black Panther is unfortunately the kind of bizarre bullshit I expect from my industry. The AD field is not exactly eager to think about race–largely due to the overwhelming whiteness of AD professionals. (Bear in mind I say this as an AD professional who is often overwhelming and always white.) There is some disagreement within the industry about whether race should be mentioned in AD at all—even in works where racism and social justice are at the fore. In an industry loathe to even acknowledge race, it makes sense that no one thought twice about bringing in their usual white British guy to do the Black Panther AD. It’s complete and utter racist bullshit, but it makes sense given who’s slinging it.

In addition to reflecting the racism of the AD field, this casting choice also exemplifies one of Reid’s other major critiques of how audio description is done. As he says, “Movies, televisions programs, documentaries, theater plays..any visual medium are really works of art. Someone has a vision. With movies and television , it’s the Director who is in charge of what the consumer sees. He/She is setting up and or approving camera placement, lighting and everything involved with the final images. They’re telling the story. That’s what the consumer sees. Audio Description being written by a third party is now including a new vision. One that to my knowledge doesn’t include any real consultation with the Director.”

At the risk of putting myself out of a job, I have to agree here. When I write AD, I do my best to try to figure out what the director is trying to say, but it’s always my interpretation. I choose what parts are significant, what visual elements tell what I think is the story or aesthetic. Depending on the project, a filmmaker may embrace my second vision entirely or want to direct it to fall in line with their vision. Where a particular collaboration falls within that spectrum depends on the filmmaker’s overall approach to their work and the given project.

Since I work on independent projects, I have the privilege of working and consulting with filmmakers directly. However, given how peripheral disability access is to Hollywood, I sincerely doubt this is the case with big studio films and television series.

For many projects, AD writers are left with an educated guess of the director’s vision. Unfortunately, whoever called the shots for the Black Panther AD was clearly uneducated about racism, Afrofuturism, and Britain’s history of colonialism and imperialism in East Africa. And if they did know even a single thing about either of those topics, they did not apply that knowledge to their casting practices.

Besides active malice, this is the only explanation I have for creating an AD track that recalls the very worst anthropological documentaries: a white British man describing at a distance the actions of Africans. This National Geographic-y tone is entirely inappropriate to describe Wakanda, a nation that goes through great pains to avoid the Western gaze.

Yet, as Reid points out, the tone (and the lack of directorial involvement it makes evident) isn’t the only issue with the Black Panther AD track–and with the industry in general. Reid notes, “With the limitations currently in place in creating an Audio description track for a movie, most notably making use of the silent time in between the dialog, things are going to get left out.”

This time constraint is perhaps the most frustrating part of my freelance work. Films can offer up so many profound, narratively significant visuals, but often leave little silent time in which to describe them. This is particularly true for films that make heavy use of voiceovers and musical sequences. I frequently find myself searching for 2 second pauses in which to jam an entire scene’s worth of visuals. It’s frustrating to put that much effort into a snatch of description that I know cannot deliver what it should to the audience.

I talk a lot of shit about audio description that only seeks to meet the bare minimum rather than create a compelling experience for all audiences. But the time constraint sometimes forces me to focus on conveying only the bare minimum because I don’t have the silent time to describe more. The convention of working within pauses of the film’s running time compels me to abandon my professional convictions and artistic philosophy.

So far, my solution to this troubling problem has been to yell, “Shut up! Shut the fuck up!” at whoever’s speaking on film in the hopes of creating a few extra seconds of silent time.

As of writing, I have not been successful.

Reid proposes a much better solution: “It seems like a track could be created and either streamed prior to the movie and even be made available for listening before arriving to the theater.” This additional track would preface and expand on the description included in between the film’s dialogue. Having even a few minutes of pure talky-time before the film would really help to establish the setting, aesthetic, and characters. This would be especially helpful for genre films which take place in worlds created for the film. As Reid says, “In the case of Black Panther a more comprehensive description of the country could have been written including their technology and more without spoiling the movie.”

I wish I had thought to create an opening track when I did live audio description for Gattaca in March. It would have allowed me to include general details about the film’s dystopian setting without spoiling all the plot twists. In future projects, I’ll definitely discuss opening tracks with filmmakers.

Reid makes more good points than I could respond to in this (already pretty long) post. If you haven’t done so already, I strongly encourage you to check out his latest episode—especially if you work in film or audio description. It’s so important to seek out the voices of our audience and actually listen. Reid My Mind Radio is great place to start.


Thank you to Thomas Reid, for creating such an amazing and thought-provoking podcast, and Leroy Moore, for sharing the latest episode on Facebook. 

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