The first episode of Netflix’s Trigger Warning with Killer Mike is essential viewing for fans of the Super Size Me type of documentary. Following in the shoes of Morgan Spurlock and other filmmakers who’ve shared their experiences experimenting with their consumption of anything from fast food to marijuana, the Run the Jewels rapper known as Killer Mike (real name: Michael Render) aims to go three days living solely in a black economy. That means he can only support black-owned businesses and black-produced goods, and it’s not easy.
The purpose, like Super Size Me, is not just a form of self-punishment but is Mike’s way of educating viewers about the history and the worth of African Americans keeping their dollars in their own community. In the past, the black economy thrived because there wasn’t any other option due to segregation (the show references The Negro Motorist Green Book, which also inspired the popular new movie Green Book), but today there’s a need for encouraging more black businesses. And encouraging those businesses to sell food grown by and products made by fellow African Americans.
More than Super Size Me, the episode (titled “Living Black”) reminds me of Xmas Without China, in which a family tries to spend the holidays without buying anything made in China, and Made in the USA, which follows a man trying to live off only goods made in America for 30 days. With help from series director Vikram Gandhi (Kumare), Mike makes his point perfectly in just 25 minutes, compared to the feature lengths of past personal-experiment docs.
Unfortunately, just like Spurlock’s career, Trigger Warning gradually declines in quality and necessity as it goes on. There is definitely a refreshing significance to Mike’s hosting and co-writing and producing such a program. There aren’t enough African-American voices in documentary, especially of this gimmicky sort. Other episodes tackle subjects we’ve seen before — “Kill Your Master,” about the founding of a nation called New Africa on a former plantation is a rehash of the 2010 feature How to Start Your Own Country; “New Jesus” is about the founding of a new religion, something John Oliver did on his show four years ago — but not for the same reason or with the same result. “New Jesus,” for instance, mainly addresses how Africa-American Christians worship a white idol and instead need a black messiah.
Not every one of the six episodes of Trigger Warning is so focused on race. “F**k School” is a mini-doc of the variety challenging the American education system. The point here is that kids need to be taught more practical trade skills rather than foster implausible dreams, but then it moves away from the children toward adults by conceiving an idea to combine porn and instructional videos as a means to get people to learn plumbing and electrical basics. It’s kind of funny but no more inventive or potent than Naked News has been in its 20 years of existence — that’s not to say that 20 years running, Naked News isn’t impressive in its endurance.
The best episode after the first, and really the only other one that I highly recommend watching, is the third, “White Gang Privilege.” Similar to “Living Black,” this episode is like a segment of a Spurlock or Michael Moore doc or a comedy news program such as The Daily Show. Mike criticizes the racist double standard where a white gang such as the Hell’s Angels is celebrated through merchandising, yet the Bloods and Crips aren’t afforded such opportunities. Both gangs attempt to change minds about their fraternity organizations by producing their own soft drinks and attempting to sell them commercially.
The back half of Trigger Warning is not nearly as engaging or memorable as the X-rated and poignant first few episodes. In addition to installments on the founding of a religion and a country, there’s “Outside the Box,” about the formation of a music supergroup consisting of extreme individuals, including a white nationalist. Its point is made quickly enough that where the episode goes is just superfluous cringe-worthy material. And unlike the first three episodes, the latter three keep referencing the prior segments and bringing back people we’ve seen before, so they don’t stand alone the way “Living Black,” “F**k School,” and “White Gang Privilege” do so well.
Although I’m not on board with the entire series, I can’t deny its potential, if there’s a chance of more. Not surprisingly, given his appeal and leadership as not just music icon but also as an activist, political power, and community influencer, Killer Mike is a very enjoyable host and first-person character. Of course, that only makes the episodes where he takes a back seat and is not as central a figure falter. Especially for his and Run the Jewels’ fans, we want to see him putting himself through his own schemes, which when done well is still not just about him, because he’s merely an entry point to bigger ideas. As an ensemble piece, the show doesn’t work nearly as well.
Trigger Warning is not all that different from another Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, which does a great job of highlighting David Chang as a host we want to follow anywhere, even if we’re not hardcore foodies. Killer Mike isn’t as unpretentious as Chang, but he is still similarly a man of the people and has a certain likability that makes me, and surely many others, want more of the show solely for his personal take on various issues and topics. Hopefully, there will, like Ugly Delicious, be another helping of Trigger Warning, but I also hope Mike and his collaborators can fine tune this show with the better material.