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Protest Art Tunes Into Receptive Audiences Via Film and TV

Queen and Slim Move
Courtesy of Campbell Addy/Universal Pictures

Genius exists in anyone skillful enough to turn a nightmare Tinder date into a political protest about Black America’s fate. “Queen & Slim” develops a world in which the unarmed black man isn’t murdered by a police officer. Instead, he, the titular Slim (Daniel Kaluuya), shoots a cop in self-defense and goes on the run with his Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith).

Art isn’t created in a vacuum. Television shows such as “Black-ish,” “Being Mary Jane” and “Atlanta” have incorporated police brutality into individual episodes, rendering conversations digestible and part of everyday black life.

Several recent films centering on black stories — “Clemency,” “Harriet” and “Just Mercy” — also address this systemic violence. These are necessary stories about African-American issues, especially in light of such movements as #WhiteLivesMatter or #NotAllCops. Rounding out the conversation with 2018’s “Of Monsters and Men” and 2019’s “Black and Blue,” a post-#BlackLivesMatter genre is emerging.

Creating a feature film about the topic is risky: Black audiences already live it and others may not want to see it.

That wasn’t a concern for screenwriter Lena Waithe. “We wrote this for black people. Period. So if other folks want to come and listen in, they’re welcome,” Waithe told Variety before the film’s debut. “Even though I don’t necessarily know some of these [victims of police brutality], I know them. And I feel like we’re a part of the same family, and I feel like a piece of me dies when I see these news stories. And I don’t think people who maybe aren’t black, aren’t brown, it’s a thing that may be difficult for them to relate to. So what I was really trying to do with the film, I’m gonna put them in our shoes and say, ‘This is how it feels.’”

“Queen & Slim” achieves exactly that with a tense traffic stop straight from the headlines. After the cop is shot, the film’s stakes are laid out in three lines:

“You’re a black man that killed a cop and then took his gun,” says Queen, aka Angela Johnson.

“I’m not a criminal,” says Slim, aka Ernest Hines.

“You are now.”

Criminality is subjective, a label determined by the state. Race is a factor, gender a modifier. Context doesn’t matter. It’s a parallel that anyone who’s been paying attention will understand.

The film’s director, Melina Matsoukas, created it as a “love letter to blackness.” Indeed, “Queen & Slim” highlights the complexity of black identity: working class vs. upper class, piety vs. godless direction, ’hood versus respectable, excellence vs. existence.

However, every thread for discussion becomes a moot point with the film’s ending, in which greed-driven state violence turns the couple into martyrs, strengthening the black community while broadcast news tells a false narrative of armed threats.

Shelleen M. Greene, associate professor of cinema and media studies at UCLA, praised the film’s images and potential for interpretation.

“Queen and Slim become mythical, legends. For me, the film was about how black people survive and find joy amidst institutional violence; we don’t have to sacrifice beauty even when we’re talking about extremely difficult things,” Greene tells Variety. “The visuals interrogate. The actual use of the dashcam or the mobile phone, the ways in which we’ve become accustomed to capturing scenes of violence, the way they test the truth.”

The film is beautifully shot and composed; Matsoukas’ background as a photographer and music video director pays off. But for African-American audiences, the emotional trauma can be overwhelming. When 20% of the people shot and killed by police officers in 2019 alone were black men, according to a Washington Post database of police shootings, why would black moviegoers pay to leave a theater feeling as disheartened as they would if they turned on the news?

Filmmaker Julie Dash offers a reason why these stories carry much more weight and context in a feature film: “Matsoukas has crafted a film that’s not only something new; it’s undeniably something more — an unexpected baptism, through cinematic displays of images that haunt us long after she fades to black.

“More than a genre road picture, Matsoukas paints a picture of a resistance march, where black bodies are forced to negotiate life and death while navigating the highways and backroads of America.”

The developing post-#BLM genre was given a jump-start in 2018 with “Hate U Give,” starring Amandla Stenberg. Director George Tillman Jr. took a “character-first” approach to his story about police brutality.

“We see all these shootings on the news and read about them in articles, but we don’t know how people who are actually affected by it deal with it,” Tillman tells Variety. “Racism and police brutality are systematic issues. These are things that have been passed down for years and years from slavery and KKK programming. All of that goes into the neighborhood and the community. Film opens eyes, but you have to do it by being honest and authentic.”

Tillman’s film raises an important point: audiences can feel outrage by an immediate violent transgression, but they forget that the real world requires action, not platitudes on Twitter. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Michael Brown drove the message of #BlackLivesMatter into everyday conversation, clearly inspiring Hollywood creatives. But names such as Ariane Lamont McCree and Dante Redmond Jones, both of whom died in officer-related shootings in November, fail to get national traction in the news.

Ultimately, Queen and Slim take on the responsibility of being stand-in characters for these stories, acting as memorable examples when news is forgotten.

“Queen & Slim,” as the strongest entry in the post-#BLM genre to date, widens the gates for more films centered on police brutality, inviting witness to real-life truths. Despite all critiques that could be applied to it, the film opens a conversation. A labor of love with extreme nuances and various interpretations, “Queen & Slim” is one of the most thought-provoking films of 2019.