If You Want to Protect Black Art, Protect Black Critique

Queen & Slim (2019)
Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

I will never forget the day my skin thickened.

I was a baby-faced undergrad student sitting in a circle of my literary peers, awaiting my academic doom, also known as the “writing workshop.” My heart raced with an urgent fury and my stomach twisted into a knot only an Eagle Scout could untie. There I was, exposing my once-guarded brain as it leaked onto my desk like an emotional wound.

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The best way I could describe that feeling is, “vulnerable bubble-guts.”

When Erykah Badu stepped onto the stage in 1997 to perform “Tyrone,” not knowing she was about to fuck shit up with one of the most influential impromptu performances of that era, she prefaced her first lyric with, “Now keep in mind that I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my shit.”

Very few quotes resonate with me the way that did, and it’s one I quote, fervently, today. After typing that last dot of punctuation with a satisfied grin, I went into the classroom assured that I had written something close to a masterpiece. Did I think it was perfect? Of course not. But, my naïveté certainly convinced me it was something close to it. Next, the critical notes came, like naysaying bullets, riddled throughout my exposed body. That shit hurt. Point is, I survived to tell (or write) the tale today. From those notes, I was able to turn in a better second draft to my favorite professor. Moral of the story: I became a goddamn better writer because of it.

There’s a term in the film industry called, “tentpole.” A tentpole film is one that is expected to make a shit ton of money for the studio and is used to support related merchandise like toys and games. It can also be used as a crutch for the studio’s flops, making up for its lost funds. In the past few years, I’ve noticed a “tentpole”-esque application to a range of black-led projects—think Insecure, Black Panther, A Wrinkle In Time, She’s Gotta Have It, Get Out and more. The primary focus wasn’t so much on the content as it was on the importance that we support black creators, black talent and black stories. It was bigger than just a television show or a film. Entranced by the second coming of a Black Renaissance, I must admit I became entrapped in the allure, as well.

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The moment I saw Queen & Slim at a preview screening months ago, I knew it would be polarizing. I have my own critiques of the film (I have far more problems with that errant protest scene than the ending, by the way), but that eagerness to discuss was swept by the politics of the criticism itself. And it left a bad taste in my mouth.

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I read review after review, from critical to raving, and thought, “This shit is beautiful.” I marveled at the sight of black critics and consumers alike openly discussing and debating the themes of a film written, directed and produced by black women. And quickly, something switched. It was something about the reaction to black critics (specifically, black female critics) having the audacity to speak their unsweet truth that didn’t sit right with me. It never sat right with me.

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Look, I get it: I’m a creator. I’m also a critic. I know the structurally racist rigamarole that black filmmakers have to go through to not only get our projects produced, but more importantly, properly financed and distributed. I know the pressures thrust upon a black creator to represent any and all blackness and how our freedom of creative expression has been snatched from us because we only have the privilege of so many slots to fill.

However, the fear of getting a second chance is a heavyweight burden upon black critics’ shoulders—and it’s certainly not ours to bear. The assumption that black art cannot handle critique is patronizing, condescending and far more insulting than any negative review will ever be. And there is no one who can critique art created by black people with the nuance, firm tenderness and thoughtfulness of a black critic.

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Additionally, that fear has transformed into a grotesque form of gatekeeping. Not only is there a hesitancy borne out of the protection of black art, but the protection of one’s own evolving career. There’s a fear that I and many of my peers have shared, that if we speak less-than-favorably about that popular black thing, we’ll be blacklisted—ousted from the industry. A blacklisting that includes harassment, bullying and other unsavory things that certainly do not fall under the category of productive and healthy discourse. We yearn for more black people to not only occupy creative spaces but to become gatekeepers who can widen the current narrow gaps. But, if the black keeper of said gate is operating with the same mentality of the very oppressor who once locked them out, they can keep that key. I don’t think I even want to enter such a gate.

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Journalists are not publicists. Yes, journalists are in a position to provide press for a certain project, but there is a stark difference between coverage and critique. Criticism was never about convincing the audience to see (or not see) a movie, it was to assess and subsequently engage in discourse around it. A spoiler-filled review will never replace the experience of actually going to see a film, nor should it. Criticism is a craft in and of itself, and is thusly, art. Art isn’t created in a vacuum. It is not conceptualized and crafted to be catapulted into a void. It is to be chewed, tasted, swallowed and ingested in a way that sticks to your ribs.

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Maybe one day, we’ll get to make our shit and it won’t have to be revolutionary. It won’t have to represent each and every black person in existence. It won’t have to serve as the precedent for subsequent black art to prosper. It won’t have to make history in a line of “firsts.” It could simply be because there’s a vast array of other options on the same level playing field readily available to digest.

It’s been about 15 years since my skin began to truly thicken as a writer. And I’d be lying if I said critique doesn’t sting at all, to this very day. I’ll always care what you think of my shit. Hell, worry about me when I stop caring. But, what I won’t ever do is invalidate the purpose and value of constructive criticism, especially from black critics. If I do, I give all of my loved ones permission to slap the shit out of me. Really.

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My thickened skin can handle it.

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About the author

Tonja Renée Stidhum

Staff Writer, Entertainment at The Root. Sugar, spice & everything rice. Equipped with the uncanny ability to make a Disney reference and a double entendre in the same sentence.