Black protest – especially against police violence – scares some people. The Attorney General of the United States, for example, does not think the police should be criticized. Last week William Barr issued a threat: if certain communities don’t start showing the police “support and respect” they “might find themselves without the police protection they need.”
In an earlier speech to the Fraternal Order of Police, Barr claimed “the anti-police narrative is fanning disrespect for the law.” This is, of course, a lie. The movement for black lives is about holding the police accountable, to the communities they serve, and to the law. The movement’s platform calls for racial justice and healing, not violence.
If this were just another case of Barr misrepresenting facts in support of his right wing ideology, it might not be remarkable. The big problem, however, is that this myth about black activism has the potential to halt one of the most important racial justice movements of our time.
The lie shows up in, of all places, Queen & Slim, an importantnew film. The movie is “woke” but has a tragic flaw. Black activism against police abuse is depicted as something to be both admired and feared.
If you haven’t seen Queen & Slim you can keep reading until I tell you to stop, but then you should go see the movie. It’s rare to see African Americans – especially dark skin
African Americans – filmed so lovingly. We look and sound beautiful. A scene in a Mississippi juke joint is one of the most powerful invocations of unapologetic blackness ever committed in any art form. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon or Miles Davis Kind of Blue.
The movie begins with Queen and Slim on a first date when Slim’s car gets pulled over by a racist police officer. Slim ends up killing the officer. The lawyer in me says the killing was in self-defense, but as a black man I understand why they go on the lam. The rest of the story is about their journey, on a modern day underground railroad, to freedom, which in this case means Cuba.
The lead performances by Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya are revelatory. But when Oscar times comes, I won’t be rooting for everybody black. To say Sturgill Simpson plays a racist cop diminishes his performance. He is a racist cop. I’ve been patted down by him several times. Another time he pushed me against my car.
I’ve written books about race and criminal justice and I don’t focus on racist cops because I don’t think they are the main problem. I’m a professor and the average cop is no more racist than the average professor. But when a cop is racist, there is something about his gun and his authority to lock up black people that inhabits his very being. He reeks – and Simpson gets the reeking just right.
The brilliant performances establish Queen & Slim’s central subversion. The movie gets the audience rooting for a cop killer. What would the Attorney General of the United States say?
We already know because William Barr might as well be an uncredited co-producer. This is the point where, if you haven’t seen the film, you should stop reading. What follows is spoilers, literal and figurative.
I’m not mad that Queen and Slim die at the end. I get the cinematic references to Bonnie and Clyde, and Thelma and Louise. I know about Afro-pessimism and racial realism. Honestly, if it were my movie I would have made a different choice because, at least in fiction, I like heroes to have heroic outcomes – especially African American heroes, who usually don’t win in real life. So, with regard to the ending, I have artistic differences but respect.
But my next message to the filmmakers is, as an African American parent might put it, what you are not going to do. What you are not going to do is repeat a vicious lie about black resistance.
But that’s what the movie does. On their journey, Queen and Slim spend a lovely afternoon with an African American child who is inspired by their story. The next day, the child attends a protest against police violence, where he shoots a cop for no apparent reason. The officer killed is an African American who was trying to be nice to the kid.
Say what? The scene doesn’t make any more sense in the movie. The entire story could transpire without it. It’s still pivotal though.
It’s pivotal to William Barr. It’s a pivotal talking point on Fox News, where a graphic on its morning news show called Black Lives Matter a “murder movement.” Anchor Kimberly Guilfoyle described the agenda of Black Lives Matter as “its ok to go ahead and kill cops.” In 2015, conservative pundit Katie Pavlich told Megyn Kelly that Black Lives Matter is now “a movement that promotes the execution of police officers.”
The result is that Queen & Slim is the cinematic version of one of those wimpy politicians who is scared to say “black lives matter” without immediately adding “blue lives matter too.” More insidiously, the film echoes William Barr’s idiocy that demanding police accountability is dangerous and disrespectful to cops.
My expectations of the Attorney General – based on his first year serving Donald Trump rather than the United States – are quite low. But the filmmakers, who got right so much else about African American history and culture, should have known better. Indeed, without the glorious tradition of black protest, they would not have had the opportunity to make this movie. They had a responsibility to demonstrate that tradition accurately, and their failure to do so undermines not just a movie, but a movement.