The act of thinking about Black art and its meaning in a larger cultural context is equally as important as the final creation.
By Stephanie Smith-Strickland
Over the last two years we’ve seen films like Black Panther — Ryan Coogler’s triumphant diaspora-spanning addition to the Marvel pantheon — and Get Out, Jordan Peele’s darkly comedic exploration of race through the lens of horror — break box office records while pleasing global audiences and creating historic cultural moments. More recently, we’ve watched the legacy of Harriet Tubman consecrated on the silver screen through the vision of Eve’s Bayou director Kasi Lemmons and her co-writer Gregory Allen Howard. And then of course there’s Queen & Slim, a cinematic stylization of the familiar outlaw on the run trope, this time with an au courant twist of racial tension and nefarious betrayal. The film, directed by Melina Matsoukas and written by Emmy Award winner Lena Waithe, became a lightning rod for conversation in both social media spaces, and in the hands of Black cultural critics, whose reviews of the project ran the gamut from raving adulation to lukewarm approval. Harriet fared similarly, with the controversy surrounding the casting of British-Nigerian actress Cynthia Erivo coagulating conversation long before the film’s release. Using the hashtag #NotMyHarriet, many took to Twitter to express their distaste at some of Erivo’s past comments, which some felt were indicative of a disdain for African-Americans.
One doesn’t have to be the architect of stories like Harriet or Queen & Slim to sense that building a visual world and supporting narrative, particularly around a heroic real-life figure such as Harriet Tubman, or even portraying a fictionalized account of painful truths while still attempting to center modern romance, as we see in Queen & Slim, is not an easy feat. To be tasked with the safeguarding of history or the proliferation of a world view inherently rooted in the complexities of Blackness is both an honor and an incredible burden. And not a burden in the sense that the duty is without joy, love or pleasure, but a burden in that it is a thing that cannot help but to be heavy. The weight of fact even within the framework of fiction; of history and the unknown future, become entangled in these moments, and inevitably, the question of what it means to exist within a Black body then, now and in times we have not yet experienced seems to always bubble to the surface. The truth is, no matter how many times we pose this question, and no matter how many explorations of this theme occur in film, literature and the visual arts, the answer is and should be different every time and for everyone, and that is why and where thoughtful and loving critique becomes a necessary and essential part of the dialogue.
When Cassie Da Costa, a Black woman and entertainment writer at The Daily Beast penned a measured and empathetic meditation on Queen & Slim, which, while acknowledging the beauty of the film’s heart, also called to the carpet some of its perceived flaws, journalist and fellow cultural critic Touré took to Twitter to lambast the review in a tweet that insinuated that Da Costa and The Daily Beast were merely performatively crucifying the film.
In a now-deleted tweet, Jodie Turner-Smith, the film’s lead also took to the social platform to state that it was especially jarring to see negative reviews from Black critics. While Turner’s initial tweet read, “negative reviews from black critics HURTS. but so does black life. thank you all, anyway, for watching. and thank you for discussing. we are a complicated family but words of Queen by @LenaWaithe: “thank you for this journey no matter how it ends,” Turner-Smith later amended the sentiment and went on to clarify that her feelings in no way invalidated the critiques.
Director Kasi Lemmons similarly got ahead of potential Harriet critiques after a tweet from Asia Chloe Brown took aim at what some perceived as a white savior complex in the film. Specifically, the presence of Black bounty hunter Bigger Long played by Omar J. Dorsey, (it should be noted that Black bounty hunters did indeed exist although there is no historical record of Harriet having encountered one, or of a person by the name of Bigger Long), who not only violently murders Janelle Monae’s character Marie Buchanan, but attempts to do the same to Harriet before he is shot by Gideon Brodess, her former enslaver. In an interview with Buzzfeed News, Lemmons made it clear that such a reading of the film was completely averse to the narrative she aimed to craft.
As justified as Turner-Smith and Lemmons are in the defense of their work, so too are those who take the time to engage with what they have so painstakingly crafted. The act of thinking about Black art and its meaning in a larger cultural context is equally as important as the final creation. And when respected journalists like Touré wield their large platform to reduce these ruminations to mere Internet hate, it only works to dishonestly silence important dialogues that center the multidimensionality of Blackness. As fine artist Sable Elyse Smith astutely stated in a conversation with me, “All art and especially Black art needs rigorous intellectual engagement and scholarship built around it. These are the things that get canonized, that get taught, that get referenced – it creates a record and a trace of existence that is so important.”
What is even more important is that we give these future canons room for disagreement, and the same room to be less than excellent that projects centered around whiteness are afforded without question. The imposition of a group think mentality on Black art as a means to shield it from the criticism of the white gaze is an understandable defense mechanism, particularly considering how long and inescapable its shadow often feels, but it ultimately does a disservice to us all to address this conundrum by simply refusing to allow room for conversations about how we exist outside of monolithic ideas of Blackness. What the critique around films ranging from Queen & Slim to Harriet, Black Panther and beyond teach us is that there is a beautiful nuance and diversity within our experiences. If and when our art fails to reflect this, or even more alarmingly, projects a reality that implies the opposite, it is important and necessary to unpack these shortcomings because to do anything less is a failure to the future generations, who will only be taught that their reality is a flat and one-note way of existing, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Stephanie Smith-Strickland is a Los Angeles-based freelance features writer, editor, and copywriter working primarily in music, fashion, and lifestyle. Her bylines include: Highsnobiety, Complex, Valet Magazine, OkayAfrica, Whitewall Magazine, No Tofu Magazine, Selectism, Schon! Magazine and more.