Being “woke” used to mean you were a member of politically conscious, black social media, or just a hardcore Erykah Badu fan (her 2008 song “Master Teacher” is often credited with the first usage of the now ubiquitous phrase). As times changed, the expression became distorted based on who was using it, and to whom it was being uttered. When the phrase became utilized in conjunction with #BlackLivesMatter, it was to make others aware of the numerous injustices being perpetrated by (mostly, if not all, white) power structures in the name of oppressing the black community. Once “woke” entered into our slang vernacular, it could be slung as a playful jab at those looking to earn appropriation merit badges by claiming they just watched something like I Am Not Your Negro and were now suddenly aware of all struggles black people endured on a daily basis. There’s also the association of the phrase with valuable cynicism regarding the invisible mechanizations working to hide the truth behind authoritarians’ often racist and judicially dubious motivations.
Naturally, when an entity’s stock increases in terms of awareness, pop entertainment producers are sure to utilize it in order to profit off of what they undoubtedly perceive to be a fad. Thus, “Wokesploitation” is born. The best example of this newly minted subgenre would be The Purge films which, over the course of three (soon to be four) motion pictures, mutated the notion of “wokeness” into crass, perverse, hyper-violent slices of genre theatre, aimed at thrilling you with blood and guts while opening your eyes (in rather ham-fisted fashion) to injustices the American government have perpetrated in the name of demonizing and destroying the poor. Healthcare, insidious philosophies regarding national security, class warfare waged upon inner cities’ PoC; all of these things are explored via heavy-caliber carnage and buzzsaw senselessness. Arguably, “Wokesploitation” is just an extension of the rebellious cheapies churned out by the likes of John Carpenter and Larry Cohen during the '70s and '80s, angry middle fingers to the establishment packaged inside of monster movies and escapes from New York.
Now comes This is Your Death, Giancarlo Esposito’s outrageous media satire where individuals enter the titular game show in order to commit suicide live on air. It’s The Running Man meets Network; melodramatically campy and splattered with brain matter, but not lacking a scathing sense of purpose. After a contestant empties a clip into her potential suitor and his newly picked bride on the movie’s Bachelor clone, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?, its Seacrest-style host, Adam Rogers (Josh Duhamel), suffers a morning show meltdown. Adam blames the deaths on the country’s perverse love affair with social media and reality TV while the smiling host (James Franco) attempts to diffuse the situation and producers scramble to pull the plug backstage. Only instead of sacrificing his job, Adam’s persona becomes invaluable, and he’s tapped to host This is Your Death, which has been masterminded courtesy of a legal loophole the network discovers during their attempts to dodge Millionaire massacre lawsuits.
Along with screenwriters Kenny Yakkel and Noah Pink, Esposito crafts the perfect set up for an exploitation movie about exploitation, as This is Your Death actually feels like a gameshow those waiting around for the annual Purge Day would watch in order to kill time while loading their guns and planning their looting routes. Of course, Adam parlays his newfound power into a way to make this grotesque endeavor meaningful, refusing to stay on script as he narrates the Voice-ready sad sack backstories of spousal abuse and molestation these future self-made cadavers spin, and even pledges that the network will match the charitable contributions (up to $100,000) those at home make to the contestants’ families and causes of choice. The show is naturally a gigantic hit (there wouldn’t be a movie if it wasn’t), and his evil super producer (Famke Janssen) searches for ways to up the stakes in order to draw more viewers in. Can someone gas themselves in a car on stage? Can they blow themselves up? How sensationally disgusting can these deaths become?
Let’s get something out the way: This is Your Death is trash, and it doesn’t necessarily know that it’s trash. But that’s what makes it special. The greatest exploitation movies are the ones fueled by pure passion and which persevere over the limitations of budget or filmic know-how. They’re the ultimate explorations of intentions dying and then giving way to something totally new, unexpected and unsettling. This is Your Death is a perfect example of that. Esposito is clearly working some shit out on screen, and he’s not necessarily the greatest (or even a good) director. The flat cinematography makes every awkwardly blocked scene look like a motion smoothed soap opera. Yet the aesthetic cinematographer Paul Mitchnick (who’s spent the majority of his career shooting TV Movies) creates actually highlights the unreality of what we’re watching. Sure, it’s goofy and garish, but it also immerses us inside this bugnuts universe of pain. Every role – even the “Average Joes” looking to end their miserable days in front of a live audience – are played by beautiful people. It’s a ridiculous anti-reality that never once attempts to sell you on anything beyond its extreme POV.
Perhaps most fascinating of all is Esposito casting himself as Mason Washington, a janitor at the television studio who holds down another job as a dishwasher in order to keep a roof over his family’s heads. Mason is a dejected person – having once been at the top of his sales field before being let go by his company. Now, it’s impossible for the proud fifty-five-year-old black man to get anything but a job emptying trashcans for white media power players. The bank is closing in on his house since he’s five months behind on his mortgage, and Mason can’t stand the way his wife and kids look at him any longer. Anybody with a quarter of a brain knows exactly where this parallel B-Story is headed; Mason’s downward spiral acting as a funhouse reflection of Adam’s rocket flash into the upper stratosphere of fame. Both men are in danger of losing both their bodies and souls completely, and will inevitably collide in the film’s finale. It’s not hard to wonder if Esposito’s commenting on the plight of the black working actor via the character, wholesomely clinging to any job they can while white counterparts commit the most amoral act and still earn the world’s adoration overnight.
Like all pieces of exploitation cinema, not every shoddy element can be shined into a highlight. Subplots involving Adam’s pill-popping, nurse in a cancer ward sister (The Walking Dead’s Sarah Wayne Callies) and sorta-love interest producing partner (Caitlin Fitzgerald) are really only there to histrionically damn the self-described hack once he finally lets fame pervert both his “art” and himself. Meanwhile, it seems like no one in the audience even remotely objects to the ever-escalating horror spectacle This is Your Death offers up to both them and us, while Esposito judges both. But the ethical superiority the movie emanates is also part of what makes it as endlessly intriguing as it is demonstrably awful. Esposito doesn’t seem to want to admit that he’s serving the very same thing that he’s ultimately condemning, and that’s OK. Like another TV satire by the very man who helped deliver Esposito into the spotlight (Spike Lee’s Bamboozled), This is Your Death is opening our eyes to the ways media numbs and pacifies us through sensationalistic images while rubbing our noses in the filth we ourselves don’t like to admit we enjoy. “Stay woke, my friends,” Esposito seems to be saying, “because if we don’t, this is the only thing that’s ever going to be broadcast on our respective idiot boxes.”