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.