“Queen & Slim”: 4 Things we could all learn about critiquing Black art
OPINION: Since Lena Waithe's 'Queen & Slim' came out, opinions have run the spectrum, which is fine. But there's a way to look at the work of Black creatives that lends itself to legitimate critique
If you’ve been anywhere near Black Twitter since Thanksgiving, you are all too aware that Queen & Slim, the feature film debut from Emmy winning writer Lena Waithe, has sparked a lot of heated debate from people who usually agree on what Black Excellence looks like.
Some applauded the movie for its message and unapologetic “Blackness,” others pointed out glaring blindspots in the narrative, and then there was an even louder group of those dragging it for filth and turning it into fodder for memes.
Given the reported $17 million it cost to make this film, all the high profile celebrities attached to it or and/or proudly promoting it, and the stunning visuals provided by director Melina Matsoukas and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe, a few weeks ago we all assumed this movie was going to be an instant classic — a la Love Jones — that our kids would be citing as one of their favorite film in years to come.
At least that’s what my friends and I all assumed, until we logged onto Twitter last weekend and saw something very different popping up on our timelines. Of all the tweets I read — many of which ran the gamut from undeniably funny to downright petty — one in particular caught my attention.
It was from a young lady who clearly loved the movie, stating that all the Black people critiquing it were traitors to their race for calling it anything less than stellar.
This bold declaration got me thinking, “Is this where we’ve gotten to? Where no Black person is allowed to critique anything produced by other Black people without being seen as a coon?”
I’ve gotta be honest, as someone who has a personal fondness for Lena and what she represents in our community but who has also made a career out of unpacking pop culture for my readers, that assertion — that all things Black must automatically be treated as excellent — just doesn’t sit well with me.
And so, rather than write yet another critique of Queen and Slim (which seriously, at this point, I’m not sure there’s anything new left to be said), I’d rather use this film, and the response to it, as a case study to illustrate what we all need to keep in mind when critiquing Black art in general.
Be honest about whether you like it before consulting ‘experts’
While this first guideline may seem obvious, the truth is many of us have lost the ability to know what we think or feel about things on our own. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve peeped people logging onto Twitter to check the temperature of the crowd and using that as a launchpad to figure out which opinion is the trendiest one to voice.
Groupthink is at an all time high. And while back in the day opinion pieces were used as an intelligent addition to conversations, now the public often uses these “hot takes” as a crutch. Their logic being, “Well if a really smart person tells me this movie is good or bad, who am I to disagree?”
That’s a really flawed viewpoint because art is subjective and actually meant to move us to think and feel for ourselves. Sure, there will be times when you have an uninformed opinion about something and consulting with others gives you the context and insight to evolve in your views. That’s a beautiful and necessary part of these discussions.
But that initial, “Do I like this or not?” is a convo that needs to happen with yourself first. So please be willing to have your own initial thoughts on things before checking out what folks are saying on social media. It’s a muscle that many of you have unwittingly failed to develop.
I'm actually encouraged by all the conversation #QueenandSlim has kicked up about Black art, Black critics, and criticizing Black art. Our art deserves to have these complex and varying, fiery and fierce, mixed and messy conversations, too.
— Tre'vell Anderson (@TrevellAnderson) December 1, 2019
Acknowledge any personal biases you showed up with
Once you pinpoint what your first knee-jerk reaction is, then you should probably be willing to also play devil’s advocate and look at why you feel that way, a practice which includes acknowledging what personal biases you showed up to the theater with before even seeing the film.
For example: if a movie has been hyped up by everyone and their mother, the chances of it living up to those outlandish expectations when someone sees it weeks later is fairly low.
Also there are just some genres of movies many of us find fatiguing and therefore already have a bias against. A perfect case of that at play is slave movies. A film about slaves could be gorgeously written, directed, and acted, but if you hate that premise in general, that pre-existing bias is going to affect your ability to objectively critique it.
I mention this because part of what worked both for and against Queen and Slim is the high profile buzz and gorgeous marketing campaign behind it. It was hyped up to be an instant Black classic on numerous media outlets. But what many failed to take into consideration was that this was the very first time that both the writer and director had ever made a feature film.
It would have been almost impossible for even the most brilliant first timers to live up to those expectations. And it’s my personal belief that its because of all that hype that many found it hard to give Waithe and Matsoukas the sort of wiggle room they may have otherwise received had this been a low-key indie production.
— Universal Trinidad (@Universal_TT) December 4, 2019
Remember that Black creatives are still human
So this one harkens back to the “I’m rooting for everyone Black” mindset that was brilliant when Issa Rae said it on the red carpet at the 2017 Emmy Awards, but can actually become divisive in conversations centered around Black people being empowered to critique Black voices.
I will always be extra mindful of how I critique a Black creative who has consistently shown up (and shown out) for their people. And Waithe has time and time again pulled other Black people into her eco system and given them a leg up in an industry that often denies their mere existence.
Which is why some of the disdain and harshness directed at her the last week has felt not just jarring but at times also mean spirited. Now does the fact that she loves Black people somehow make her above reproach? Of course not. No one is above criticism. And the truth is most good filmmakers cringe when they look back at their first film and see all the things they would now do differently after getting more experience under their belt. She may herself feel the same way five movies from now.
As the old adage goes, “steel sharpens steel.” So it is both valid and necessary that we tell Black artists where there’s room for improvement and point out the ways they may unintentionally be alienating their audiences. I applaud that line of thinking both professionally and personally.
However, let’s keep it all the way funky, fam. We all know that’s it’s possible to say the right thing in the wrong way. Delivery matters. And the way some of y’all have gleefully taken this woman to task, doesn’t feel like it’s just about the movie.
Instead it comes off like, someone who has been a media darling for years, “finally” got less than a standing ovation in the court of public opinion, and those who have perhaps secretly been annoyed by her success… are getting a rare opportunity to take her down a notch.
Not only is that not cute, it also says more about you than her.
Now does this mean anyone who didn’t like the movie is an automatically a hater? Of course not. In fact one of my close friends gave me a laundry list of feedback about how he feels the story could have been better executed. And that list was so thoughtful and balanced, I looked at him and said, “I hope you and Lena get to meet someday and talk about this.”
So the issue here isn’t the need to always agree or give people passes just because they’re part of the Black elite. It’s more-so a reminder that Black artists are still human, and it’s totally possible to dislike someone’s art without acting as if you hope to crush their spirit in the process.
Be weary of prioritizing the white gaze
My last point is simple. When criticizing Black art (or Black anything really) please leave the need to appeal to or garner a reaction from white people out of this. We need to stop centering our work around the white gaze. Full stop.
This actually touches on one criticism of the film that I think most of us can concede has validity, which was there moments when there seemed to be a need to make Black Lives Matter-esque political statements even when it didn’t necessarily fit the narrative.
The thing is Black people already know about Black plight, and sometimes the over explanation of our struggles feel like it’s subconsciously meant for white audiences. Because you don’t have to explain us to us — and you certainly don’t have to brutalize us to reflect our pain.
But unfortunately, the brutalization of Black and Brown bodies has become so normalized that even we have become desensitized to it.
Which is why I would like to challenge all Black creatives (be you A-list or an unknown) to remember that it’s totally possible to “keep it real” and tell ugly truths about what we go through, without relying on images of us bruised and bloody. I say that not to chastise but to tenderize. Let’s prioritize showing our own bodies and images the compassion that much of society still seems resistant to and stop relying on the visual of dead Black humans as a “money shot.”
Whether people loved it Queen and Slim or or loathed it, arguably, Lena won just by making sure the industry was forced to give her a seat at the table. Historically, white people make films that folks don’t like all the time and are still allowed to grow in their craft and keep building their legacies.
I hope we can all agree that Black creatives need to be afforded that same grace.
Follow writer Blue Telusma on Instagram at @bluecentric