Queen and Slim begins with a dearth blacks in America have become accustomed to—the dearth, or violent obscurity, in representation. British actors as African-Americans proves even more jarring in a film that repeatedly references the characters as “African Americans.” Neither lead fits this description, so the label becomes a mask, a costume that the lead actors wear to entertain those whom the difference neither registers nor matters.
The white media calls Queen and Slim a love story, but the film actualizes an American Horror Story all too familiar to those who missed the cut to play themselves on the big screen. The film’s heroine, Angela Johnson, encompasses how white America views the black woman—insultingly independent, serious, and assertive. She reaches out to Ernest, a romantic prospect she encounters on Tinder, after a bad day at work. There is love in his eyes from the start, and perhaps many viewers knew the fate that awaited these young lovers. Their fate, however, only became clear to me when the two sat gazing at the water. By default, water bears an antagonistic relationship to most black folk. This antagonism often proves both personal and collective. I personally can not see water without thinking of the journey that brought me here, or my younger cousin, who washed up on Valentine’s Day almost three years ago. Water is the element that framed our coerced arrival, it’s what separates/seperated us from our kinfolk, and, metaphorically, it’s what we’ve been swimming in, or wading through, ever since. If rivers and oceans could talk they would tell a plethora of tales of the souls who passed through on boat and body. They would cry for the women who gave birth through their peaceful waves, and how their water proved a looking glass between life and death, between the earth’s mortality and an immortality that lies in the sky. So while it seems like Angela and Ernest run from the law, the two swim across the transatlantic trauma that accompanies the black experience by default.
The problem with the film is that it betrays the fractured consciousness and shattered identity Dr. Wade Noble prescribed a people whose abjection would compose the uniting force for a place called America. These terms make it next to impossible for the Black person to imagine themselves beyond trauma, which is precisely what viewers witness with Queen and Slim.
Trauma pollutes what should have been a black love story with an American gaze that relgates black happiness to the afterlife. It is trauma that places black lovemaking in the throws of the civil war black protesters experience with white police officers. Nevertheless, it is a poignant moment when Ernest tells Angela:
“If I had a chance, I’d kiss all your scars.”
The line encompasses the film’s most resonant line that stays with the viewer after the credits. It is perhaps every Black woman, arguably every black person’s wish to have their scars mended by a love the wrath of white supremacy makes us feel as if we do not deserve or will never find. Black love is black justice; it is the metaphysical means to combat what white supremacy exists to mutate. It conflates courage, kinship, legacy, culture, knowledge into a future, compromised centuries before it arrived. Yet it is the sea of trauma, embodied in the Queen and Slim film, that allows the evolution of black love, the portrait of justice to black people, to precede these young black bodies becoming riddled with bullets.
These bullets, from agents of white supremacy angered by Angela and Ernest’s ambition to with back, and insulted by their courage to “hide in plain sight, “ personifies America’s devotion to extinguishing black love, but more significantly, this depiction illustrates creator Lena Waithe’s inability to imagine a black love story beyond anti-black expectations.
Angela and Ernest’s death is not artistic, but an assault to a collective all too familiar with watching our shared blood smeared on the concrete as another life, another legacy, conveniently cut short.
In his film Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker pairs Nat Turner’s historically gruesome murder and disfigurement with an artistic aesthetic. His story wants black people to remember Turner’s murder and mutilation to deter our liberatory ambitions. Parker’s film constitutes black art by circumventing anti-black expectations and restoring Turner’s legacy what it always was—a story of courage and hope. Nat Turner’s story is a black love story where a man dared to love himself when the anti-black world violently denied the black “self,” replacing the concept and ideology with “slave.” Queen and Slim espouses its black hero and black heroine to an anti-black legacy where death, well, murder, marks black achievement.
What is black art if not a canvas for what could be? Let us be mindful that for many Historically Black Colleges or Universities, like a black world or society, remains an element of fantasy. These colleges became what they are because our ancestors re-imagined their trauma. Though imperfect, they exist as an ever-evolving portrait of black art, for what is black art if it does not challenge the black viewer to make the unreal a reality?
What is black art if it does not challenge the black viewer to re-examine their relationship with themselves or their relationships with other people? What is black art is black people remain confined to the same negative caricatures that bind us to myths of “black on black violence,” and black people as the cause of their own systemic disenfranchisement. Here, I speak specifically to Queen and Slim and the recent Harriet film that depict the black man as employed to “take down” the black revolutionary. Infiltration remains an issue in our strides forward, however, to focus on the puppet and not the puppeteer reflects a cruel convenience tailored to anti-black benefit. This cruel convenience mediates more the the gold-toothed black male villain who lead Angela and Ernest to what ultimately becomes their death, than the trigger-happy solider of white supremacy who murders an unarmed Angela in broad daylight. Ironically, viewers witness a similar carelessness in Set It Off, when Kimberly Elise’s character dies in a similarly devastating fashion, a fashion that mirrors the fate of real life black women like Tatiana Jefferson or Korryn Gaines.
But, I suppose digress.
It is hard not to view films like Queen and Slim as the “red jelly stuck between ‘lizabeth Taylor’s toes” as poet Amiri Baraka famously said in his “Black Art” poem. Admittedly, I had no use for Baraka or that poem before hearing it read in a room full of white women who turned red with anger upon hearing each word Baraka wrote. It is at that moment I realized what black art should be. Black art shouldn’t make our oppressors comfortable or even seek to acquaint them to the African experience. Black art should speak to Black people and imagine a black future beyond the terrors of white supremacy.
To be clear, black art is not about escaping trauma. No, it’s what Christina Sharpe called reimagining and reconfiguring responses to terror, in the wave of slavery, in her book In the Wake on Blackness and Being (18). Black art explores ways to overcome systemic and social injustices. Black art explores ways to imagine our way into new realities. Perhaps most significantly, Black art must provide the foundation for a black future.
Furthermore, Queen and Slim is not black art, not only because it fails to be artistic, but because two black bodies in a morgue who prove a muse for a community mural encompasses its future.
Death is in everyone’s future, but what should designate black art, is life.
3 Comments Add yours
I saw this film last week. The acting was well done and it had beautiful cinematography. But I knew the ending after watching for ten minutes. Once the white cop was shot their fate was sealed. Also the film was full of negative stereotypes. This film was not touching like Boyz N The Hood. It wasn’t a love story like Love Jones or Brown Sugar. Critics are hyping it up like it’s a black classic. It’s far from it. I know the director is a lesbian but I let that slide. I still went in with an open mind. Then I saw the transgender man named Queen. I knew something like that would slip in the film.
I knew this couple would die but why do violently? There’s no way they would ride off in the sunset. If you kill a white person you must pay the price. That’s the way white supremacy operates. This was a mental assault on the black mind. These films aren’t entertainment. They are psychological warfare on the black masses. I wish more black people would use critical thinking skills and see this is mental pollution for our children. This film is basically saying black people can never win! We always lose! That’s a dangerous message to send. What do you think CC? Do you think these type films are conditioning us to see ourselves as failures? Or that white power will always win?
Ever since Waithe said she rented out a theatre for folk to view the “Crazy, Rich, Asian” movie I’ve been giving her the side eye. I’m still very disturbed by the film. But this, and the Netflix series where the girl tries to save the brother that got shot, illuminate and inability to imagine blackness beyond white supremacist trauma. This should not be a film nor a thought in any black person’s mind. The only pro was that Kaluuya is an amazing actor. He still should not have been cast though lol. So many errors, and I’m still hurt after that predictable but very painful ending.
Waithe did that?? I didn’t know that. But I shouldn’t be surprised. You’re correct in everything you said. Netflix film? Are you talking about See You Yesterday? Yeah I saw that too. Have you seen Black and Blue? It stars Naomie Harris and Tyrese. It’s about a black female cop trying to take down a corrupt police force. I had some major issues with that film. If you see it you’ll know what I’m talking about. But I do agree that Kaluuya is a great actor.