Monday, December 2, 2019
Black cultural critics and minefields after reviews of Queen & Slim
Although black cultural critics are quite pervasive these days, their works and opinions are rarely the story. Thus, it was notable over the weekend when many people on social media discussed black critics in the aftermath of some negative reviews of Queen & Slim.
Brooke Obie's review for Shadow and Act and Angelica Jade Bastién's review for Vulture spurred considerable conversation. Some people complained about black critics critiquing a film with a black writer, a black director, and lead black actors. Those complaints were really harsh, expressing concerns about racial solidarity.
One observer noted that “Even if what you say is true [critiques of Queen & Slim], it’s wrong for you to down another sister’s art publicly. It’s hard enough for Black women to make it in Hollywood without having Black saboteurs doing their dirty work."
Another observer referred to Bastien as a sellout (i.e. "Auntie Tom") based on her review. Those comments, and there were many along those lines, reflected some of the challenges that black cultural critics face when and if they offer unflattering appraisals of black art.
In response to some of the harsh backlash, Bastién tweeted that "being a black woman and a film critic is such a minefield sometimes." Obie wrote that "Spotlighting, critiquing, lifting up Black art and Black artists is what I do all day long for a living. It is a JOY. I am the happiest I've ever been! It's still an emotional minefield." The use of "minefield" by both critics is noteworthy.
For black cultural critics, one wrong step on a seemingly hidden trigger, and things can explode. There were many positive reviews of the film, but that was apparently less important than those two negative reviews, and growing critiques on social media. Novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge noted that "The reason these discussions about black art are so fraught is because of the very real economics of how its disseminated--the argument is always, you criticize this movie/book/show/play, another one won't ever get made."
Fears and worries among black folks that public criticism of black artistic production by black critics could jeopardize future black artistic productions were on full display, animating some of the exchanges. For some, black cultural critics should primarily affirm and advocate for black art and artists. But doesn't this setup create tremendous barriers for black critics?
"Too much pressure is put on black film critics to protect blk art and we have to release all that. There are films w/n the last 2 yrs I kept shut about bc I was afraid of losing connections or access," tweeted Valerie Complex. "Some of your blk favs have blocked blk critics who are critical of their work. While white critics get carte Blanche to say whatever. This is the pressure, this is the fear that comes with being a blk critic and it’s not fair," continued Complex.
The online conversation about what black critics should and shouldn't do was so pronounced that even Queen & Slim screenwriter Lena Waithe chimed in. "We haven’t overcome until we can have honest opinions about each other’s work in public," tweeted Waithe. "We don’t mind being a part of that shift. I’m sending love 2 every black critic whether you loved it or hated it. You have the right to write your ass off about it. And y’all have."
Just as some people had responded negatively to the reviews by Obie and Bastién, there were many who followed up with affirming support for the two critics. That's good. But I wonder how many of those minefields remain in place. The next time black cultural critics offer critiques of productions we're supposed to support, we'll see what happens.
• A short checklist of black cultural critics