“Queen & Slim” had revolutionary potential, but falls flat precisely where it should soar. I’d like to blame the worst parts of “Queen & Slim” on James Frey. Frey is wealthy, and famous for lying in his memoirs. Perhaps it is unsurprising to some that he is also a white man. What is surprising is that he was invited in the writer’s process in the first place. Which begs the question, who invited him?
I was in college during the assassinations of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. The year Black Lives Matter won Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, I graduated and marched. I participated in protests on my college campus alongside the Dream Defenders. We were harassed by university employees, called racial slurs, and threatened with anonymous bomb/mass shooting threats. Simultaneously, online I was flooded with images of people who looked like me being tear-gassed and brutalized by their government. Friends at colleges across the country were engaged in a similar fight. That’s probably why I was so deeply offended when the Pepsi Corporation decided to pay Kendall Jenner millions of dollars to pretend to be a protester. It felt like the powers that be were mocking our suffering.
Lena Waithe’s script for “Queen & Slim” has a protest scene. It is interspersed with a sex scene, and it doesn’t make any sense. Almost immediately, I forgot how beautifully shot the film was. I couldn’t recall my appreciation for Daniel Kaluuya’s incredible acting skill. I don’t even remember Jodie Turner-Smith’s character’s name. All I could ask myself is, how could they handle something so important, so poorly?
Then suddenly the entire movie began to fall apart for me. Indya Moore’s charisma, Bokeem Woodbine’s hilarity, and a strong score couldn’t compensate for the final thirty minutes of the film. It all began to feel like Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi protest scene- monied interests co-opting radical politics to defang them.
In the five years since Michael Brown’s body was left out in the street for the entire world to see, Hollywood has recreated seemingly infinite images of protest. It seems every TV show or movie featuring Black people in the past few years has done some rendition of a Black Lives Matter protest. At this rate it is unlikely to stop.
Perhaps this was what James Baldwin meant when he established the dichotomy between art and the protest novel in “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Baldwin posits that although the American protest novel (as typified by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Richard Wright’s Native Son) claims to bring greater freedom to the oppressed it actually perpetuates the common lies that enable suffering. Baldwin writes, “The ‘protest’ novel so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene…whatever unsettling questions are raised are evanescent, titillating; remote…so that finally we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all. This report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation.”
I interpret Baldwin to mean, that art designed to stir the conscience of the dominant class lacks the radical power of art that humanizes the vulnerable. While Baldwin’s retrospective analysis was spot on, it failed to predict a future where the action of protest itself could become a commodity. He didn’t foresee a future where images of Black people standing opposite a line of faceless riot gear armed with Molotov cocktails could serve the interests of capital. Waithe’s script unfortunately does just that, falling into a category of content which on its surface engages themes of protest and resistance, but ultimately reinforces the status quo. Like Jenner’s Pepsi collaboration, Waithe’s art is not designed to question what activated the poor masses, but it may alleviate concerns about resistance. In the end, the “Bad Niggers” are punished. Might silences the opposition. Historically and presently, we’ve been told the Nigger must suffer so the world order can continue on as it always has. I don’t see that changing until someone is invited to tell a new story…