The 1990s is considered the “Golden Age of Black Film and Television”, and not without good reason. For the better part of ten years, Black (and white) directors and screenwriters created films that put Black characters in a mode of gradual normalization. 90s’ Black film was working with the successes and failures from the works made during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.
For Black directors and writers who were able to put their work out there, the thesis of those decades was to wedge even more space between the myths of Black laziness, buffoonery, victim-hood, and sexlessness. Problem is, manufactured isolation made it easy for the industry to reject Black directors who preferred meditative dramas over flashy action or comedy.
Manufactured isolation made it easy to create a narrative where the only thing that seemed to be coming out were your garden variety Blaxploitation films, even if that wasn’t necessarily true of the previous decades. According to the Shudder documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess was famously butchered because it was “too intellectual” for a studio looking for another schlock horror film like William Crain's Blackula.
How Black films in the ‘90s are deified has a lot to do with how their directors were ‘allowed’ to openly pursue more dramatic pursuits in tandem with comedy, action, or romance. The oldest Black Baby Boomers and Gen Xers in their early 30s and 20s entered the industry intending to further representations of Black life on screen. There was also the desire to mentor other Black creatives, to help them navigate the industry with less difficulty.
Two decades on, Julie Dash (a filmmaker since the 1970s), John Singleton (the youngest person with a Best Director Oscar nomination at 24), and Spike Lee (a wunderkind himself) are immortalized in Black canon as the trailblazers for ‘90s Black film. All three directors brought to table their own life experiences or interest in Black history. The accumulation of things taught and learned were applied to Do the Right Thing (1989 film often mistaken for a 1990 film), Boyz n the Hood, and Daughters of the Dust.
Once again there was a ‘realization’ that Black moviegoers were viable capital. Black directors and screenwriters appeared to come out of the woodwork with a variety of distinct stories across different genres. Because of those filmmakers, Black faces and Black stories were further normalized for Millennial-era kids like me. Glimpses of adult films, media gossip about celebrities like Oprah Winfrey or Denzel Washington, never gave me the impression of abnormality or that this was a relatively new thing. But for the youngest of my older siblings (also Millennials), entering their early or late teens, it was probably a big deal.
While Do the Right Thing, Boyz n the Hood, and Daughters of the Dust being added to the National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” is nothing to sneeze at, it alchemizes an often self-perpetuated myth of Black cinema’s lack of variety or oversaturation of a particular subject. Something the industry is only too happy to bolster when they need to look like champions of the fabled Representation in Media.
The hot topic of the era, coming out of the ‘80s, was of how drugs — reportedly ferried into the United States by the US Government — , police, and gang violence affected Black neighborhoods. Conservative and pro-cop films like 1974’s Death Wish or 1971’s Dirty Harry, would have the general public believe that Black communities were occupied by subhumans. Criminals who needed to be bent under brute force, and infective tough-on-crime policies.
Directors like John Singleton, F. Gary Gray, and Spike Lee argued against that with the humanization of Black families, loners, historical figures, and even drug dealers as people trapped in or benefiting from a system of manufactured poverty. Their works, largely dramatic, or satirical in nature, tried to dispel the white myths of “welfare queens” and “superpredators”.
The idealization of Black life in the ‘90s expanded toward narratives that focused heavily on the ‘benefits’ of capitalism or the entrepreneurship of middle and upper-class Black characters. Black middle and upper class life lent itself to romantic comedies or dramas that explored troubled relationships, like 1995's Waiting to Exhale (an adaptation of a Terry McMillan novel) and 1998's How Stella Got her Groove Back.
Comedic actors like Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy, amid a group of guys who never reached their status (Bill Bellamy, and Joseph C. Phillips), all starred in rom coms that romanticized womanizers or well-to-do men who lived in cushy houses within or outside low-income neighborhoods. Halle Berry almost unifies them all as different versions of the idealized, bob-haired working woman of sexual fantasy, but she doesn’t star in How to be a Player and A Thin Line Between Love & Hate.
Oppositely, actors like Wesley Snipes, Lawrence Fishburne, and Denzel Washington shifted from civilians and villains to morally upstanding authority figures within the military, government, and inner city police departments. For all the “Fuck the Police”, “Cop Killer”, and “Black Cop” songs that emerged from Hip-Hop (explicitly titled or otherwise), the talent of actors like Snipes, Fishburne, and Washington lent itself to the much needed to recuperation of the police as morally upright dudes in search of justice.
They were one-man-army heroes in campy, supernatural, and gritty neo-noir stories. Danny Glover, an actor you couldn’t typecast if you tried, succeeded the likes of Sidney Poitier and Richard Roundtree as the keeper of the police drama thanks to Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon series (1987–1998). Denzel Washington’s taste for the military would see him appear in Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide in 1998, Edward Zwick’s Courage Under Fire in 1996, and his directorial debut, Antwone Fisher in 2002.
While the romantic comedies, dramas, thrillers, and to a lesser degree, horror films, were released in equal number, what folk began to regard as “Hood Films” created the perception that these films were dominating the filmic landscape of Black directors or writers. Historic retrospect only makes this worse, but in the moment, Spike Lee denounced most of them as trash, and people treated his word like creed.
It wasn’t long before “Hood films” — which did share a symbiotic relationship with Hip-Hop’s gradual glamorization of violence and unexamined misogynoir — became something to dread. 1996 solidified this thesis in the parody Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Juice in the Hood (a Wayans Brothers production), and Spike Lee critiqued it with an anvil in Clockers.
Recollections of Black film and television from the ‘90s are very much like the scene from Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Black folk dressed in finery, partying with the top-down as they race across the Brooklyn Bridge, sipping on champagne. It’s a nostalgic and sometimes reductive image that folk never wanted to see come to an end — or rather, adapt with the times.
But, as a select group of Black directors who enjoyed the upsurge would later confess, the industry treated them like a fad. Black directors and films were beneficial for a time, but as 1999 transitioned into the year 2000 — The 21st Century, New Millennium — their output seemingly dwindled. Most of them could only get work on television or had projects rejected outright. They were, in their own words, set up to fail. The industry grew bored with them, reinforced the status quo at the same time they tokenized them whenever accused of racism and a lack of diversity.
‘The 2000s were nothing but Black Comedies’
Black kids in my age demographic didn’t get family movies focused on them akin to films from the 80s and 90s (Bebe’s Kids is an adult film, it does not count). To make a point easier to understand, there were no Black directed or written films about a group of Black kids foiling a man in mask, discovering aliens, buried treasure, or bullying crooks with boobytraps.
Instead, these types of films affirmed that Black kids were destined to be the Black Best Friend — the diversity hire — with no stake in the plot. Black kids didn’t seem to get the kind of adventure films I’m talking about until 2011 with Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block. By then I was in my early 20s, the ship had sailed.
In the early 2000s, for all the manufactured isolation, the youngest Black Millennials, now creeping toward high school or graduate ages, had a few someones that represented them. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) and Charles Stone III (Drumline) are the deified examples. I had no real working knowledge of how the industry was shutting out Black creatives (no one my age did), but here’s the thing.
I was growing up in that weird limbo where life was not dominated by online technology — but that technology itself was fast becoming what it is now. Internet crawling was irrelevant in the face of video game marathons, mall and park hopping, until the slowly collapsing economy forced our family back into the workforce.
When I bothered to watch television, I picked and chose what movies I thought were crucial and what I thought was over-exposed, whether or not it actually was. This was never from the basis of feeling stereotyped or dying for unique representation, I was just petty like that. I didn’t watch Love & Basketball and Something New for years simply because they were romances and I hated romances.
Disney’s teen-oriented channel offered the rare fantasy story in Seventeen Again in 2000, but defaulted to a toothless Civil Rights era tale in The Color of Friendship that same year. Twitches and Twitches 2 was probably the last time the company explicitly ventured into Black fantasy (Jett Jackson: The Movie, and Up, Up, and Away! came before), but by then they were also producing Black slice-of-life films like Jump In! and Let it Shine.
Grounded coming age and collage bound narratives were the bread and butter of the early 2000s Black teen film. In 2001, dramas like Thomas Carter’s Save the Last Dance and Gus Van Sant’s Finding Forrester were films I gravitated to and enjoyed during the Blockbuster Video era because they focused on dance, writing and books — my favorite subjects.
Nick Cannon seemed to rule the roost of teen comedies with 2002’s Drumline, 2003's Love Don’t Cost a Thing, and 2005’s The Underclassman. Shad Moss (lil Bow Wow) cropped up around the same time in 2002 with Like Mike, Roll Bounce in 2005, and The Johnson Family Reunion in 2004. He alternated between action and comedy with Fast & Furious Tokyo Drift in 2006, and Lottery Ticket in 2010. Moss lasted longer than Nick Cannon did as the token Black teen representative before vanishing into manufactured isolation.
It seemed like comedies were the hour of decade, so I decided I loathed Black comedies with a vengeance. There were “too many” of them, but I wasn’t exactly seeking other Black films either. And while the late 2000s saw a down-turn toward drama and camp with Honey, Stomp the Yard, and You Got Served, by then I was actively ignoring Black films that didn’t tick my dramatic boxes. Part of it was because of internalized racism. The other part was the feeling I couldn’t relate to the characters. I had no throughline, or at least that’s what I told myself in my mid-teens.
Around 2009 the Internet became a greater mode of communication, so my perspective on Black films and Black history gradually shifted and plateaued as I entered college in 2011. I wrote and came up with ideas for Black stories I wanted to see — tired of just complaining about what I wasn’t getting, but I haven’t finished them.
Around the same time, I started actively seeking out Black users on social media. It was fairly impossible on platforms like LiveJournal (white fandom elder hell v1, and unkind to Black folk in general). But a platform like Tumblr, and later Twitter, made it easier to find Black women to talk to.
Through those interactions, I realized a lot of Black kids were watching adult films from the lack of variety. We all noticed how the industry wasn’t representing us now, and how [white] online spaces were isolating. They were keen on telling us to be grateful we got anything (especially when Princess and the Frog came out), and to “stop being toxic by calling out racism.” Tumblr is anti-Black as hell, but I value the Black folk I’ve met there.
The Black userbase on Tumblr (at its peak) had a lot to contend with. It was a social media platform that catered to white interests first, and like popular fanfiction websites, ignored racism and harassment reports from Black users because they loathed ‘censorship of opinions’. Tumblr’s staff deleted Black users accounts, often ignoring the fact that they were being reported for chronicling the harassment they were suffering from popular white users and warning others about their stalkers.
Discussion about Black media or woes could rarely go smoothly without white users interjecting themselves into the conversation — just to derail and piss off a lot of Black users who wanted nothing to do with them. And as the years rolled on, despite the spaces we defended, be it websites or blogs outside of Tumblr, it never got any better there. They just found new ways to harass us, all while boasting they were going to make new social media spaces where they could be free to express their opinions without the ‘toxic callout culture of anti-racism’.
Still, we continued critiquing the lack of representation of Black folk in film, and the industry put on airs of listening to us after Black creatives within our age demographic or older spoke up about their difficulties getting hired or getting projects off the ground. In 2013 we thought things were going to change. In retrospect, as this decade ends, yeah, it changed, but at a snail’s pace.
Five years into my experience on Tumblr I noticed a shift in the conversation’s tone among Black users. One I participated in, and still take part in if I don’t catch myself — with Black films. It was the “hyper-criticism” of Black films centered on police brutality, and Black films with a heavy dramatic or angsty bend to their narratives.
Dismissing Black Drama as ‘Trauma Porn’
From the number of Black films that I could find for the 2010s, most Black directed, written and produced films usually don’t go any higher than the 20s, 30s, or 40s in number. That’s pitiable compared to the hundreds of white films released, promoted or forgotten, but that’s the nature of manufactured isolation the Black creative is stuck in currently.
Online spaces like Tumblr, Lipstick Alley, and Twitter would have you believe dramatic films have overstayed their welcome as the dominant genre film in Black cinema. That police brutality narratives dominate the growing space made for Black creatives. A lot of the time it’s a case of what people choose to give the most attention to.
Once upon a time, Internet Movie Database used to be the only consistent way to find and list Black films to recommend. Before YouTube got copyright happy, you could watch a lot of known and unknown Black films for free (and largely by accident).
But the rise of streaming platforms like YouTube and Netflix’s “Instant Watch” in the late 2000s has made Black films easier to find, easier to recommend. Not just the mainstream Black films or the ones that made the independent (Sundance) circuit, but the budget films with the awful box art you’d see at Flea Markets in Black neighborhoods.
Streaming made foreign [language] films all the more accessible. Millennials and Gen Zers were consuming not just Black American films, but Black films produced in Africa and Europe once stuck behind region locks or hefty import prices on eBay and Amazon seller lists. It was no longer advantageous to overlook Black films because of their box art, budget or subgenre. You never knew what you were going to get in terms of quality.
Black drama and angst narratives are no more or less than Black romances, comedies or action films. They’re even in terms of output, which isn’t something you can say about Black horror films, an actual niche. Historically, the drama genre is considered a model of prestige and maturity compared to its contemporaries. This is something that’s even true with white and non-Black films. You want to be taken seriously as a creative, your ability to write or direct drama makes or breaks your career.
Despite the general variety of Black films available and coming out each year, Black online spaces have become fairly antagonistic towards dramas. Dee Rees’ Pariah was a perpetuation of the tragic gay character. Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk was ‘glamorizing Black hardship’. Jenkins’ other film, Moonlight, fell back on the drug narrative — invoking the “Hood film” critique. Stefon Bristol’s See You Yesterday, a sci-fi film, was dismissed wholesale and lambasted because it dealt with police brutality, nevermind the lighter aspects of the film.
A white directed film like the sci-fi drama, KIN (Jonathan and Josh Baker) was misconstrued as a film criminalizing an adopted Black boy because he was wielding a sci-fi gun instead of touching fingertips with E.T.. And Rupert Wyatt’s Captive State, a political sci-fi drama starring Ashton Sanders and Jonathan Majors, was dismissed as joyless.
Waves, a film written and directed by Trey Edward Shults (a white man), was Black pain exploitation, not a heavy-handed family drama written and directed by someone disinterested in recreating a two hour version of the “Shine Bright Like a Diamond” scene from Girlhood (Céline Sciamma, another white director), a coming of age drama that’s also fairly angsty.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco, written by Jimmie Fails (a Black Man) and co-written and directed by Joe Talbot (a white dude), was too dour and did nothing for the Black Joy. It’s not worth anything because its a drama focusing on gentrification and the loss of Black history in San Francisco.
Watching this opinion spread was frustrating. Not because I liked these films, but because the narrative felt reductive and dishonest. It had little to do with criticism that sought to improve the medium for Black or non-Black creatives.
Last month I came across a Letterboxd list focusing on lighthearted movies with black characters in them in retaliation to Black films featuring police brutality, slavery and racism. And most of the films on the list not only dealt explicitly with racism and police brutality on some level, a lot of them — like F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off and Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City — were the opposite of lighthearted. The aforementioned Waves and The Last Black Man in San Francisco were also featured.
Folk were passing the list around on Tumblr and proclaiming, “Finally, some lighthearted Black movies!” And I’m watching this post hit a thousand notes and wondering what was going on. Everyone interacting with this post was behaving as though Black films of this year (specifically), were all Black dramas and all about racism and police brutality. I felt like Issa Rae in The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, stuck in a room with out-of-touch office workers. “Did I die and go to simple bitch hell?”
Whenever a Black drama gets any sort’ve press, even if its antithesis received the same attention, Black online spaces are hit with this weird collective amnesia that reinforces the myth of the absence of lighthearted Black films. People make lists or recommendations of largely the same films from the ‘90s over and over again, and don’t branch out to other films.
It’s almost become an ahistorical mission to say non-violent Black films that aren’t dramas are neither visible or readily obtainable within the Black film canon. There are enough lists being aggregated on Internet Movie Database (at this point) alone that exposes that as a falsehood.
I found out about Queen & Slim on June 29, 2019, through a blog called fuckyeahwomenfilmdirectors. There was no fanfare, no press before that. The film chronicles how a bad Tinder date turns into a night of misfortune because of police brutality. It wore its intentions on its sleeve as a drama and a political film, and it intrigued me.
I learned about Queen & Slim divorced from the hype mentality that so often plagues the reception of Black films on Tumblr. (Think when Black Panther or Us was released.) A mindset that was adopted and used because of white bad-faith actors who would stink up a tag concern trolling or hyper-focusing on white actors. It was enthusiastic, but also performative, and sometimes overly aggressive toward dissenting opinion from Black users.
After a while, reacting to Black films like that gets wearying. Support something out of desperation, and the prize is usually George Lucas’ Red Tails and Justin Simien’s Dear White People. Eventually the behavior became detrimental to the consumption of the medium itself and often worked in a mean spirited vice versa if a Black film didn’t meet the specifically tailored expectations of the now very commercialized image of #BlackGirlMagic and #BlackJoy.
Queen & Slim few under the radar for five months. No one batted an eyelash at the film’s trailers. No one hyped the fact that Lena Waithe (Master of None, Twenties) or Melina Matsoukas (Formation, Rude Boy) were the creative heads of the project.
There wasn’t even a major uproar over the gross Straight Outta Compton-like casting call that invoked the iconography of field slaves, all to say “we’re looking for a dark-skinned Black actress” (Jesus!). No one was interested in stressing themselves out Queen & Slim. Folk appeared to withhold on the hyperbole and avoided the film because they didn’t want to see it.
There was a definite impression that it would fly under the radar and talk wouldn’t occur until it was released on home video and streaming platforms.
Then Focus Pictures’ biopic drama, Harriet released. Despite mixed-to-positive reception, British actress Cynthia Erivo’s less-than-polite commentary on Black Americans poisoned the well. Hyperbolic twitter reviews, and Lemmons’ decision to “superhero movie”-ify Tubman’s life, just seemed to put Black online users in this shoot-first mindset toward any Black film that was the anti-thesis of “Black Joy” (a phrase I’ve heard so much it sounds like a public relations buzzword).
For me, Queen & Slim was not an event, but just another film from Black creatives that I was looking forward to watching. The film itself is neither fetishistic about ‘Black suffering’ or romantic about ‘Black pain’. If anything, much of the film before the third act objects to and avoids it. Problem is, Black online spaces and the production team behind the movie didn’t allow the film to just be a film.
By its opening month it was an suddenly an event. It was the most important film you ever going to see. It was a “Black as fuck film”. Though response to the film was relatively positive with a fair share of earned criticism, the mission statement I saw online was, “Okay, lemmie go see how awful this movie is since everyone is saying its good.”
In retrospect, hyperbole was inevitable and self-inflicted by all parties involved. But where one side is overcompensating for Blackness in its advertisement, the other is criticizing the police brutality narrative for even existing as a valid story to tell on film.
‘All we get are Police Brutality movies’
Since the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman in 2012, the number of feature films (not episodes, not shorts, not documentaries) centered on or merely addressing police violence as it affects Black characters — either as victims or participants — is shockingly minimal.
What seemed to begin in 2013 with Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station — a biopic chronicling the last 24 hours of Oscar Grant’s life — , only briefly reemerged in 2015 with F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, a dramatized account of N.W.A’s career as Hip-Hop superstars and their experiences with the police. Even with just those two films, there was a complaint about their existence.
The police brutality narrative picked up again in 2017 with Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit (another biopic, this time focused on the 1967 Detroit riots), David Ayer’s Bright (a fantasy action film about a corrupt Black cop), and Canadian director Cory Bowles’ Black Cop.
2018 saw the most films addressing police violence. There was Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, Steve McQueen’s Widows, Gerard McMurray’s The First Purge, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Monsters and Men, and George Tillman Jr.’s adaptation of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (a book written in reaction to the death of Oscar Grant in 2009).
2019 gave us Rashid Johnson’s Native Son (HBO MAX), Fredrica Bailey and Stefon Bristol’s See You Yesterday, Ali LeRoi’s The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, the pro-cop narratives about police misconduct in Brian Kirk’s 21 Bridges, and Deon Taylor’s Black and Blue, and finally, Melina Matsoukas and Lena Waithe’s Queen & Slim.
There are only eight films — Detroit, The Hate U Give, Straight Outta Compton, Blindspotting, Bright, The First Purge, Black and Blue, and 21 Bridges — written, co-written or directed by white directors. One is a biopic, the other is an adaptation of a Black Woman’s book. Not all of them got major press, some flew right under the radar. Out of the lot, I’d argue Fruitvale Station, Straight Outta Compton, and The Hate U Give are the only big names.
That is a small number of films against a wide variety other releases unconcerned with police brutality or violence against Black communities. Before the death of Trayvon Martin, from 2010 to 2012, that number was even smaller and often came with the intention of recuperating the image of the police, who also rely on reality television and procedural shows to maintain pro-cop sentiment.
Police brutality films were almost always in single digits and outnumbered by the variety of genre films about other Black experiences or idealization. 2017, 2018, and 2019 stand out as exceptions because of their proximity to the years 2014 and 2015. A mere couple years removed from the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and the respective explosion of anger that occurred in cities like Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson.
The Black online narrative that these movies were getting more face-time in mainstream advertisement is exaggerated. It’s akin to the argument that the ‘90s were dominated by hood and slavery narratives. It’s the mindset that saw my teenage self argue the 2000s were nothing but Black comedies. Retrospective pop culture and Black consensus likes to hyper-focus on certain subgenres of films (trends are a thing), but the online and print media released over the ‘90s and 2000s argued otherwise.
Now, there’s certainly something to be said about how streaming platforms, like audience in question, pick and choose which Black films they highlight. How they curate which films they think are worthy of attention, while others languish or vanish behind an obtuse search engine. But no one’s really criticizing company algorithms.
Online discussion about representation and diversity of Black films has gone from critical of the manufactured scarcity to picking which Black films matter through hyper-praise or vitriol. Online spaces are now demanding — in so many words — that Black creatives not even produce drama or angst because they want duplicates of House Party, Brown Sugar, and Girls Trip.
For all the issues I have with Ava DuVernay for engaging in industry anti-Blakness and minimizing Black American actors, she said it best when the undercurrent of the “trauma porn” accusation hit her Netflix miniseries, When They See Us:
“If you don’t want to watch it, it’s good, fine with me. But I think running away from our history, running away from the realities of what so many of our brothers and sisters are going through and saying, ‘That’s too painful. I don’t want to watch it,’ I think, is challenging.”
DuVernay encouraged Black people to limit the violence they exposed themselves to. To basically take care of themselves. But, speaking from experience, Black online users tend to not do that. We’re all dealing with some kind of anxiety, depression or PTSD on some level.
There are a variety of reasons why, but the end result remains. We overexpose ourselves to traumatic content, and other times its unavoidable because there’s no consideration for our trauma online or in the media.
In 2014, we wanted to be the people holding the police accountable and never forgetting the violence done to the victims that the news categorically try to vilify as superpredators or bad actors. After Mike Brown’s death, folk on Tumblr and Twitter were watching videos of Black civilians being gunned down or choked to death, and spreading it around to other Black users.
It was like an epidemic. It got to where [Black] medical professionals had to tell people they were self-harming by watching these videos over and over. In so many words, the Black online community was told to avoid spreading and exposing themselves to the videos.
But it hasn’t stopped.
Most folk still get pissed if you aren’t circulating their posts that feature police violence (“Oh, so nobody cares about this?”). Ambulance chasers like Shaun King leverage it to their advantage. Black folk are still spreading around videos of Black civilians being shot dead or beaten by the police, but now they come with content warnings. The latter keeps you from knee-jerk clicking, but it remains true that witnessing the violence takes precedent over re-traumatizing.
And for all the documentation these videos have done in exposing police as terrorists, political change is very little or an uphill battle. The vitriolic dressing down of Black creatives for creating art that, by the nature of film, transforms Black suffering or sadness into a narrative is not only misdirected, it speaks to how damaging the need to be part of a conversational zeitgeist centered on violence has become within social media.
Black online spaces eventually just started to be naked about their intent with Queen & Slim. The reaction to the film became less about it being centered on police brutality, and more about it being a drama. Folk argued that the film’s trailers “deceived them” about the character’s relationship, that it should’ve been a road comedy instead of a drama. They didn’t get exactly what they wanted despite knowing months ahead the intent of the film.
Black creatives are not supply-and-demand machines. No one gets into the publishing or film industry to be radio DJs taking requests. They’re not game show wheels you can slap for a spin because you didn’t get the desired combination of commercialized “Magic” and “Joy”. They don’t owe you Girls Trip anymore than you owe them your time or patronage to their films.
Black users are going to have to reckon with the fact that this small number of police brutality films are not white creations, or for white audiences. This is not a case of white directors sniffing around for an Oscar, exploiting pain and racism like they did in the 1970s with exploitation films and poorly managed strip theaters.
A lot of the Black-directed and written police violence films are born from the desire to see that these tragedies are told as accurately as a dramatization can be. And to prevent the narrative from being both sides’ed, an undercurrent present in a lot of older films focused on the disenfranchisement of Black Americans.
Four years ago, Rick Famuyiwa of The Wood fame directed a teen comedy called Dope. It’s effectively a film about Gen Zers who romanticize the cultural creations of Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials, and it was pretty funny.
The film isn’t without its problems. Like most Black films, past or present, colorism still decides who appears in these films and who doesn’t. The film also suggests it’s okay for non-Black folk to say “nigga” because they’re not white. (A foolish notion, but the desire to engage in anti-Blackness with our blessing is a hellva drug.)
But, the biggest problems highlighted by the online space, was the fact that Famuyiwa’s film featured a drug plot and defined its cast of characters as that subset of Black or Brown folks called “Oreos” because they enjoy what’s perceived as “white shit” (culturally Black creations whitewashed by history and inequality).
(For all the internalized racism that comes with that subject, not everybody is that special snowflake who thinks they’re exceptional for consuming anime and listening to late 2000s white indie rock. Sometimes, Black folk are content to police Blackness without qualifiers or bad experiences.)
For all the “Black Joy” within the narrative, Black online spaces discarded Dope quick-fast-and-in-a-hurry, then perpetuated the same amnesiac cycle about there being no Black films that center on happiness. The same thing happened with Justin Dillard’s debut film, Sleight, a science fiction narrative about a telekinetic street magician who gets roped into a local drug dealer’s schemes.
Four years later, Dope is being praised by the same online spaces that kicked it to the curb. That and it’s on the aforementioned Letterboxd list full of ‘lighthearted’ Black directed or written films that discuss drug addiction, crime, and police brutality. The irony is not fucking hard to miss.
Ultimately, if Black online spaces want “Black Joy” films or television, they know where to find them. They’re always being produced. Not all of them are great, but sometimes you find that gem or something you like. Predominantly white streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon (Prime) have their fair share of non-violent Black films of the last two decades and the one ending now.
Black & Sexy TV — the precursor and platform for a lot of Black creatives in the mainstream industry now — is still producing slice-of-life content. KweliTV, The Urban Movie Channel (now ALLBLK), and Black on Purpose Television Network, are platforms that exist. If you don’t see a Black film on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, they’ve likely found a place on Black streaming sites.
The drama that’s occurred around Queen & Slim’s release just for being a police brutality narrative eclipses the criticisms of the film’s problems from spaces like Wear Your Voice Magazine, and Shadow and Act. A lot of what I’ve seen is performance seeking confirmation bias. It lends itself easily to manipulation, which leads to think pieces about Black women having to justify their criticisms of the film.
The 2010s took the diversity of Black cinema in 90s and the early 2000s to the next step and slowly reestablished Black creatives within the mainstream. Black creatives also forged their own spaces, tired of asking or waiting to be included. Black & Sexy TV’s boom on YouTube in 2011, to its own platform is a testament to that.
Now consumers of Black media have to start proactively seeking out or supporting the commercial joy they want and learning to ignore the Black dramas and angst they do not wish to support. Films like Little, Fast Color, Holiday Rush, A Wrinkle in Time, Rafiki? These films don’t vanish into the ether because one or two Black dramas in the present are getting some attention for a short period of time. Especially not with the mainstream or user-based online and televised campaigns that get structured around them in effort to boost their visibility.
Abandoning the performance of making every Black film into an event, the idea that you as an audience member have to put your entire self into the success of something you’re not going to see any financial reaping from would also help as well.
There’s getting excited about a movie, then there’s behaving like your life depends on the success or failure of said film because its something you love or hate. Our attendance or absence has little to do with what the mainstream decides is a success or failure (in their eyes). Or what even gets to see the light of day.
Police brutality narratives, Black dramas, and Black angst, none of it is going anywhere. It is here to stay, however they have to adjust going forward as trends and the political climate transforms. Like the narratives of the early ‘90s about the drug crisis that hit Black neighborhoods or even enslavement era, it has become another part of the written narrative of the Black film experience.
They’re as legitimate as the narratives about Black women struggling to find healthy relationships within and outside their communities, something that was criticized for creating an unspoken idea about ‘undesirable’ Black women.
This idea that “Black people can’t get happy endings in movies”, is a misnomer like “The Black guy always dies first”. It undermines Black creatives who write the triumphant narratives unrelated to violence, who write the happy endings. Minimizing Black dramas as pure “trauma porn” is dishonest.
I can’t look at Black films like that anymore. If a film is good (i.e., if I enjoyed it), I’ll say so, if a film is the opposite, I’ll say it. If the film is tackling the subject I just don’t want to deal with, then I won’t engage with it.
This is what people who didn’t want to see Queen & Slim should’ve done. Instead, it seemed like they went out of their way to see it. They participated in something they knew would trigger their sensitivities toward violence against Black people, and the end result — as I saw it on social media — were a lot of folks externalizing their traumatic episodes through hyperbole.
For Harriet and Hollywood Already Did It are two video reviews that summarize both how I feel about this movie and how Black online spaces have been acting about this situation. Again, it’s not a dismal of people being critical of a person’s work. Instead it feels like, and pardon the term, policing Black art in a way that eliminates almost every film that isn’t a specific reflection of an individual’s wants.
If Dope is any indication of collective wisdom shifting over time, the online sentiments toward Queen & Slim and Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet will likely be reevaluated. That’s what always happens when it’s no longer important to be apart of the immediate (social media) conversation. Or posture and treat a Black film like the second coming of Black Jesus, or denounce it as the fetishization of violent experiences.
If we see Black films try to address climate change and environmental pollution in predominantly Black communities in the 2020s, are we going to condemn them for not being centered around happiness? Are the non-violent, non-dramatic, Black films that appear along them going to be treated like they’re not enough because they’re not topical or invoking heated reactions?