American Fiction, AI & Willonious’ Film Reparations

Nettrice Gaskins
4 min readMar 21, 2024
Production still from King Willonious’ “Kalel: The Calvin Ellis Story”, an AI film.

In the film American Fiction, a writer named Monk becomes fed up with the mainstream publishing industry that profits from and relies on tired and offensive tropes from Black entertainment. Monk uses a pen name to write an outlandish book that ends up propelling him into the heart of hypocrisy and the Black mediocrity he claims to disdain. The “tired and offensive” literary expressions of Black life that AM points a finger at are found in many different artistic forms, from visual art to animation and film.

Production still from Ralph Bakshi’s “Coonskin,” 1974.
Kara Walker. “Presenting Negro Scenes…”, 1997.
Production still from “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” 2024.

Films such as Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987) and Jordan Peel’s Get Out (2017) portray these same tropes but in ways that send different messages. In the later film white antagonists take over and inhabit the bodies of their Black victims who are chosen because they excel at something. Once inhabited the zombified Black people live out the fantasies of their parasitic guests. Hollywood Shuffle features a Black actor whose dreams satirize Black stereotypes in Hollywood. The main characters in both films break out of the scenarios they are put in.

Production still from Robert Townsend’s “Hollywood Shuffle,” 1987

Townsend and Peel clearly understand the historical, unfortunate predicament Black creators and performers face in entertainment. I recently wrote a field review to explore how racial bias in early photographic and film techniques carried over into artificial intelligence (AI), which has led to harmful technological designs.

Implicit bias in the development of photographic misrepresentations of racialized bodies has led to misrepresentations that preserve an ideology that views Black and Brown people as inherently inferior to white people (Hostetter 2010).

I argue that the embracing of certain Black images and tropes by the establishment is another way of maintaining a status quo. Many artists and makers uses these historical, racist (and sexist) images/tropes to interrogate racial bias and stereotypes such as artist Kara Walker’s black and white silhouetted wall installations and The American Society of Magical Negroes that looks at the ‘magical negro’ trope. This brings me to Wired magazine’s feature story on King Willonious, a struggling Black filmmaker who uses AI to make movies.

Before he used AI tools to make his movies, Willonius Hatcher couldn’t get noticed. Now his AI-generated shorts are going viral and Hollywood is calling.

According to Wired, Willonious tried stand-up comedy, short films, sketches, and video editing but none of them got him fully in the door… until generative AI blew up during the Covid-19 pandemic. He learned how to use ChatGPT to write scripts, generates AI images using prompts in Midjourney, and animates them with Runway ML. Here’s one example:

In its most extreme iterations, gen AI extends a grotesque American tradition: the deliberate devaluing of Black life through distortion and theft. The unbound innovation of what gen AI can produce is also one of its greatest dangers, because of what it can unleash. — Wired (Jason Parham)

The author of the story, Jason Parham, implies that GenAI is the technology that somehow makes amends for the enslavement of Willonious’ ancestors, without realizing that he (Parham) is basically doing what others in the past have done: embrace certain aspects of Black life through the lens of bias and stereotypes. Each clip that King Willonious shares on Instagram comes with the following disclaimer/caption:

If you enjoyed this please share, if not I’m sorry for wasting your time and I’ll understand if you block me.

Why would Willonious assume people will be compelled to block him? Is it because of his use of GenAI (probably) or his subject matter? Or both?

[W]hen I make the AI films, I purposefully make a point to imagine new worlds. There’s nothing wrong with Tyler Perry — no shade to him — but I want us to get excited like when we saw Wakanda or Lovecraft Country or whatever Jordan Peele makes. — Wired

The clips shared here imagine Michael B. Jordan as a superhero and celebrate the artistry of Andre 3000 in his current project (as a flutist) and his prior participation in Outkast, a legendary Altanta born and bred rap group. Listening to the latter, I couldn’t help but be reminded of American Fiction. “The Flute Man” sits somewhere in a gray space between Hollywood Shuffle and The American Society of Magical Negroes. Hollywood’s embracing of Willonious’ style of AI-generated animation and narration makes me wary, mostly because, like Hollywood Shuffle, the images that emerge will likely perpetuate the status quo and not result in lasting change.

But the jury is still out on the last part.



Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.