[By C. Liegh McInnis]
The film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which chronicles the life of television icon Fred Rogers (aka Mister Rogers), reminded me that the “what” or the “subject” of art is equally as important as the “how” or the “crafting” of it. However, what gives Queen and Slim its power and beauty is the manner in which Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas seamlessly and eloquently blend the fantastical with the real and tangible to create an ode to Blackness that causes viewers to love and investigate Black culture and its struggle to exist and thrive. By fantastical, I do not mean elements of fantasy or magic realism, per se, but the notion that sometimes odd and improbable events occur that make reality baffling and wonderful. To this end, Queen and Slim is a tale that does not ask its viewers to choose between the “what is” and the “what could be” but to understand that the hell of the “what is” only remains dominant because the fantastic of “what could be” cannot be seen by enough of the very people in whom the fantastic is embedded.
From the moment the film begins until the moment it ends, it either asks or declares “how do Black people make so much beauty from so much bullshit?” I know that excrement is fertilizer, but Queen and Slim reaffirms that Black people continue the tradition of taking other folks scraps and making even better meals. The wretched of the earth don’t just survive; they thrive because regardless of what religion they have adopted or even having abandoned the notion of their being a god, there seems to be an abiding faith in the “great goodness of the universe” that is unshakable in the vast majority of African Americans, which is why Kalamu ya Salaam identifies that element as a core aspect of the Blues aesthetic in his book What Is Life?:Reclaiming the Black Blues Self. To that end, the journey on which the two protagonists find themselves is just that, a reclaiming of the Black blues self, which becomes evident in the places viewers see them hide and through the music—mostly soul, blues, and gospel—that drives, heals, and soothes them during their journey. Therefore, through the use of symbolism, the troping of literary history, and the use of the rhetorical question, Queen and Slim forces African Americans to see their potential while showing them that they are the only force keeping them from achieving their potential so that issues, such as police brutality, poverty, drug abuse, and violence are recognized as crises caused by white supremacy but are allowed to continue because of Black fear and self-hatred.
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While the film is a journey narrative designed to parallel the struggle of slaves to free themselves from the existential web of slavery and find freedom, the moment that the protagonists stop running just long enough to dance signifies a neo-narrative moment in which the characters embrace the belief in something bigger than legal freedom. The dance scene signifies that life without living ain’t shit and that Black people will never be free until they learn to love themselves more than they fear and admire white people. It’s not just that they dance but that they stop to dance without fear of consequences. Moreover, their determination to live rather than just survive is strengthened as they realize they are housed in a cocoon of Blackness that will protect them from outsiders. Similarly, the riding of the horse symbolizes that people spend too much time making plans for tomorrow while missing the beauty and power of the current moment. This is especially true of folks who spend so much time calculating and trying to survive the present that they never enjoy life. Thus, Queen and Slim is a love story as a love letter to Black people that asks them to re-recognize the humanity and intellect in themselves.The re-recognition is highlighted as viewers are taken on a reverse exodus, something that I attempted to chronicle in my collection of short stories, finding the protagonists making their way from the North to and across the South, paralleling the reverse exodus of the tens of thousands of Black folks who returned to the South during the late 80s and early 90s after finally realizing what Richard Wright told them years earlier in the last section of Black Boy—that the North is not Negro heaven.
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While adhering to Native Son’s “Fear,” “Flight,” and “Fate” theme, Queen and Slim does not do so mindlessly.It highlights Black humanity by making sure to provide varying shades and degrees of ideology reflected in Black folk who respond differently to their existential hell. The mechanic who helps the protagonists symbolizes the diversity of Black folks as he firmly disagrees with their actions; yet, unlike so many who allow their fear to overcome them, the mechanic helps them because he loves and believes in his Blackness and the Blackness of the son he is raising. But, being willing to extend Wright’s theme as far as possible, Waithe and Matsoukas show viewers exactly how Bigger is born when the mechanic’s son becomes impregnated with enough hatred to kill a police officer. The message is powerful because the young man who becomes filled with enough rage to kill is the fruit from Christian roots that have been so rotted and mangled from being saturated/polluted with the water of white supremacy that only spoiled fruit can be produced from that tree. Yet, in the same manner as Wright, Waithe and Matsoukas show that the harboring of hate, more times than not, functions to destroy the people who attempt to obtain revenge more than it impacts the people who actually inflicted the original pain. This is seen in the mechanic’s son killing a black officer who is only trying to help him in the same way that Bigger kills Bessie who only wants to love Bigger. Hatred is not just blind; it has no purpose or direction other than to destroy any and all that it can destroy. Ironically, while the two protagonists have more “agency” than Bigger, they are just as helpless as Bigger in their ability to protect themselves from the web of white supremacy. This is ironic because the chief criticism of Native Son by Black intellectuals was and continues to be that Wright created a flat, one-dimensional caricature who is unable to control his circumstances, which reflects poorly on the mass of African Americans. Now, with the deaths of so many Black people captured on video, it seems that Wright is more right about the lack of agency that African Americans have than his critics. Wright could see eighty years ago what most could only see after the invention of camcorders and cell phones—that most people have no idea what agency really is and that most of those who do know are usually too cowardly to use it.
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One aspect of Queen and Slim’s power comes from having one foot in the present with one foot in the past.The protagonists hiding from police between floorboards tropes Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, when Jacobs details hiding in the attic, where she becomes physically debilitated by being confined to the tiny space, in which she can neither sit nor stand and with her only pleasure being able to watch her children through a tiny peephole.This moment highlights what Black people have endured just to begin to liberate themselves and merely survive while illustrating the strength, determination, and willpower it will take to become finally liberated. Next, the Black police officer allowing the protagonists to escape will be considered “fantastical” but tropes Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door by indicating that, once again, Black folks must learn to love themselves more than they love being accepted and praised by whites if they ever hope to achieve freedom/sovereignty.
Waithe and Matsoukas are smart enough not to ask if Black police officers should be allowing Black criminals to escape justice. Rather, they are asking if Black people who have been given power also have the intellect and the courage to correct the wrongs of a system when they have the opportunity to do so. The release of the deceased officer’s body cam makes it clear that the protagonists acted in self-defense, even if white supremacy will keep most white people from realizing that when they view the footage. Next, Waithe and Matsoukas provide just enough insight (through showing and not telling) that viewers understand the mentality of a young, African-American officer working in a mostly white world in which white supremacy is so normal that white officers do not perceive their treatment of a fellow Black officer as demeaning. In this context, the Black officer allowing them to escape seems less “fantastical” and more an artistic commentary on one’s ability to make right a wrong when one has the opportunity, even at the risk of losing one’s job and status. The real problem is that far too many Black people have shown that their job and status are much more important than correcting an unjust system. Thus, what makes the officer’s actions “fantastical” is not that he does the “right” thing but that so many have shown that they will not do the “right” thing at the risk of their own personal sacrifice. The fear, depravity, and apathy into which so many have fallen make doing the right them seem “fantastical.” Of course, in Waithe and Matsoukas’ commentary, fear, depravity, and apathy are shown in the character who takes the payoff to “turn in” the protagonists, proving the film’s point that the only thing keeping Black people from their full potential is themselves. Again, the irony is that the character who is willing to harm his own people for self-gain is not viewed as “fantastical” while the character who risks personal sacrifice to do the right thing is conceived as “fantastical,” which tells viewers everything they must know about the current condition of the African-American mind that so readily harms its own in a myriad of ways.
The core of the film is the potential power of Black people that can only be harnessed through connectivity, and NAACP President Derrick Johnson, along with so much of Black history, has shown that the power of Black connectivity is not a “fantastical” thing. Johnson was the President of the Mississippi NAACP when Hurricane Katrina occurred. Quick to action, the Red Cross established aid centers across the southern coast from Louisiana to Alabama. However, the vast majority of those centers were in white communities, leaving the vast majority of Black folks impacted by Katrina unserved. Johnson, understanding that most of the NAACP local branches are connected or rooted in Black churches throughout urban and rural communities, began organizing and mobilizing trucks with food, water, toiletries, and clothing to be dispersed to Black churches, which became makeshift aid centers. Beginning in Jackson and North Mississippi, Johnson eventually organized and mobilized trucks from all across America, using only NAACP branches, mostly located in churches. So, when Johnson states on The Breakfast Club that the NAACP “is as relevant as Black folks make it,” he is not just speaking rhetoric. He is speaking to a reality that goes as far back as slavery through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, and the apex of the Civil Rights Movement in which most of the groundwork was done by Black folks from those southern states. This is the historical reality in which Queen and Slim is planted. So, again, the issue is not that Black connectivity and Black unity are “fantastical.” It should not be deemed “fantastical” that a community of Black folks would decide for themselves whether or not their own people are valuable. Yet, the film does force viewers to address when will African people, especially Africans in America, start to realize that self-hatred is real and is the major hurdle prohibiting them from becoming self-sufficient and independent people? When the bartender tells the male protagonist, “don’t worry; y’all are safe here,” is that “fantastical” or just an example of Black self-love that has not been seen for so long that it is almost impossible for most African Americans to recognize it as reality?
Like all epics, Queen and Slim ends with a two-part ideological question. But, from the beginning, it is founded upon and layered with questions, starting with the two protagonists on a first date bantering with questions to them continuing with questions on the drive home, more questions arise between them and the white officer when they are stopped by the officer, still even more questions about their response after the officer has been shot, and a slew of even more questions arise from the community watching their journey unfold on television and through social media. I’m guessing that over sixty percent of the dialogue consists of questions, with the majority of them being rhetorical, meaning metaphoric. So, toward the end of the film when the male protagonist tells his female counterpart about the time when he was a child and asked several family members from where do babies come, the viewer is expecting a proclamation on the deeply spiritual nature of life and its meaning. But, he explains that he decided that all of the answers of his family members are wrong and asserts that “babies come from fucking.” On its face, the assertion seems to reject completely the notion of a metaphysical and metaphorical meaning of life. But, viewers must remember that he is the one who initially prays before his meal and believes in the great goodness of the universe. He is the one who questions the validity of fleeing to freedom and leaving their family, something that Vyry from Margaret Walker Alexander’s Jubilee is unable to do because, for both Vyry and the film’s male protagonist, family is everything and the only thing of value in this life. With that context, his assertion that “babies come from fucking” is a commentary on how people understand and navigate what Plato would deem their tangible reality in a manner in which Aristotle would deem it to be meaningful or purposeful to them. Even if one believes that babies are a “gift from God,” babies do come from fucking or from having sex, if y’all prefer. What is metaphysical and metaphoric is what people decide to do with the “gift” or the “lives” of the babies once they arrive. Similarly, are the two protagonists a “gift from God” for the Black community, or are they just two people whose existences have been birth onto the radar of the Black community’s socio-political consciousness and whose fates have been decided by a fucked-up situation? These two have been fornicated or fucked, so to speak, into their current circumstance.
Clearly, like the manner in which people assign meaning and purpose to babies, these two have been birthed into a situation with which they had no choice or control and are forced to learn and navigate the experience as they go, often “making up the rules” as they go, while others (the Black and white communities) pontificate over their meaning/significance. Still, having something in which to believe, which seems to be the point of the story about how babies are produced, is the only thing that keeps people from succumbing to their hellish existence. Even more, having something in which to believe is the only thing that can motivate humans to the selflessness needed to change the hell in which they exist. Where Nietzsche asserts that “the problem isn’t that people believe in the existence of a god but that they are too afraid not to believe in a god,” Waithe and Matsoukas counter with the notion that, often, belief in something larger than oneself is the only thing that can keep humans sane and humane, giving them the courage to continue living when everything else tells them that they should die.
This leads to the second part of the question: is dying for freedom better than living as a slave as neither of the protagonists survives their ordeal? This question evokes the Byron Allen v. Comcast case that is currently before the Supreme Court. Many people much smarter than me have told me that Allen should have never filed the lawsuit and that his greed will eventually cause all Black people to lose their ability to be protected against discrimination. (And, to be clear, I readily admit that I don’t know nearly as much about the law as those professionals with whom I have conferred.) Yet, all the people who have told me that Allen is doing a disservice to African Americans have not been able to answer one question for me. Are African Americans really free if, anytime they act to obtain legal protection against discrimination, white individuals and corporations can threaten to take those Civil Rights if they don’t just accept whatever injustice whites desire African Americans to have? This time it’s Byron Allen. Who will it be next time? If the facts of Allen’s case did not merit a lawsuit, why was he able to win at least once? And, now, Comcast is not arguing before the Supreme Court on the merits or facts of Allen’s original lawsuit. Comcast is asking the Supreme Court to change how discrimination can be defined and litigated to make it almost impossible for anyone to be protected against discrimination. If all it took was Allen filing a discrimination lawsuit for black people to lose their Civil Rights, did African Americans ever have Civil Rights? I’m sure that I don’t know all of the aspects/sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but I’m pretty sure that freedom is not me begging or hoping white people will be nice to me.
In several interviews, Waithe stated that one of her demands for making the film was that she would “not take notes from white people.” Notes are what studios provide to writers and directors when the studio wants something changed. Often, those changes are meant to make the film more appealing to a “larger,” meaning “white,” audience. Because Waithe was in a position to make the film on her own, she was able to dictate the terms of making the film, even if it would be bankrolled by a studio. I’m not saying that this makes Waithe free as the only reason the studio is willing to bankroll the film is because the studio will own the rights to the film and receive the lion’s share of the profits. Still, Waithe being unwilling to take notes from a white person to preserve the integrity of her work speaks to what one is willing to do or sacrifice to live how one wants to live.
Furthermore, as indicated by the end of the film, what are Black people willing to do if they are unable to live freely? As Minister Louis Farrakhan once stated, “As long as Black people love life more than they love freedom, they will always be slaves.” As such, the protagonists of Queen and Slim show that there is no such thing as being kinda free and that an unfree life is no life at all. To that end, African Americans remain in Plato’s cave thinking that the illusion dancing on their walls is real freedom. Yet, what may be even sadder is that there are so many African Americans who know that we are not free, who have the power to help us get free, but are held immobile by fear and greed. I don’t know if I’m ready to die for my freedom, but I have long since stopped pretending that I am happy or content with this illusion of freedom. Queen and Slim presents an artistic rendering of the possibility of what can happen when enough Black folks become “sick and tired of being sick and tired” while remaining grounded in the reality that Black fear and self-hatred are as powerful as white supremacy.
C. Liegh McInnis is an instructor of English at Jackson State University, the former editor/publisher of Black Magnolias Literary Journal, and the author of eight books, including four collections of poetry, one collection of short fiction (Scripts: Sketches and Tales of Urban Mississippi), one work of literary criticism (The Lyrics of Prince: A Literary Look), one co-authored work, Brother Hollis: The Sankofa of a Movement Man, which discusses the life of a legendary Mississippi Civil Rights icon, and the former First Runner-Up of the Amiri Baraka/Sonia Sanchez Poetry Award. Additionally, he has been published in various magazines, newspapers, and anthologies.