The Problem With Rooting for Everyone Black
I’ve never left a movie theater faster than I did after I saw Waves at Austin Film Festival.
The end credits of the film were like a starter pistol. As soon as they started rolling, I jumped out of my seat, raced past the concessions stand, and ran out the door to safety.
From the moment I arrived at AFF, I was eager to see the star-studded indie film that billed itself as “the epic emotional journey of a suburban African-American family—led by a well-intentioned but domineering father—as they navigate love, forgiveness and coming together in the aftermath of a loss.” As a black woman who grew up in the suburbs, the premise intrigued me. It’s been rare to see families that resemble mine on screen outside of sitcoms. Additionally, after several days of smiling my way through networking events and film screenings with the racial diversity of a Mumford and Sons concert, seeing the black and brown faces in Waves’ cast (including Sterling K. Brown and Euphoria’s Alexa Demie) would be a refreshing change.
Unfortunately, that excitement was short-lived. I left the screening feeling angry, confused, betrayed, panicked, and a little motion sick from the chaotic cinematography.
I wanted my money back. Even though I had gotten in for free, I felt like seeing Waves had cost me.
After the screening, I drank with an African American filmmaker who had a film in the festival. He also had a strong negative reaction to Waves. While the performances, the music direction, and much of the cinematography wowed us, we both had the same overarching question–what was supposed to be “black” about that story?
What strict black parents would look the other way when their opioids go missing? How could a black student athlete whose domineering father holds him so closely under a microscope manage to sneak to the doctor and get an MRI for an injury without his parents knowing? What young black woman would call her brother a “monster” for being an abusive partner, then bend over backwards to push her white boyfriend to forgive his own abusive father? Why are we even centering a white man in the portion of the story that’s supposed to be about a black woman?
And, most importantly, how does the story of a black boy murdering his pregnant, non-black girlfriend in cold blood do anything but perpetuate the myth that black men are a threat to women of other races? There was never a true representation of nuances of black manhood. Waves almost completely ignores toxic masculinity’s impact on black women and femmes, who intimate-partner violence is statistically the most likely to affect.
Blackness is far from a monolith, even in suburbia. But how did a story about a family with very similar demographic makeup to myself and my friend’s manage contain virtually zero elements that felt authentic to either of our experiences? You could have changed the race of the Williams family and altered almost nothing. Waves felt like watching an overdone coming-of-age film about an angsty white teenager who goes down the wrong path, but carelessly dressed up with beautifully-lit black bodies. Yet despite being Beach Rats in blackface, Waves somehow continues to receive rave reviews.
A Google search quickly revealed why the narrative felt so false. A white man, Trey Edward Shults, wrote and directed Waves. In an interview with Jezebel, Shults admits that the film is largely autobiographical, but that he decided to change the fictional family’s race right before production. Instead of hiring a black co-writer, Shults did what many white people who want to remain in power but look culturally competent do– exploited his black employees. Shults gave his black cast members the responsibility of providing him feedback on how to make the script truer to the black experience, but didn’t give them credit as writers.
Any decent filmmaker knows that their screenplay may change once they’ve chosen the cast. The actors’ backgrounds and identities inform any story, but it’s never their responsibility to write the script. If you’ve created something that makes actors of color feel uncomfortable (as Waves did for Sterling K. Brown), that’s a sign you aren’t the voice needed to tell that story. Yet Shults reiterates that he is the right artist to create a film about black familial issues, ironically stating that “in the wrong hands, this [film] is a drastic disservice.”
In this cultural moment, representation is “in” and white filmmakers are appropriating black culture and talent in newer, more insidious ways. Screenwriters and directors have clocked the success of films like Black Panther and Moonlight and are preying on audiences’ thirst for new media that pushes past slavery and stereotypes as well as white critics’ desire to not look racist.
This exploitation of hunger for new narratives and a lack of willingness to critically engage is not exclusive to white filmmakers. Queen & Slim, Lena Waithe’s #BlackLivesMatter reimagining of Bonnie and Clyde, is the latest example of a film that failed to deliver on its potential. At first glance, Queen & Slim has everything – the love story of a beautiful, educated, dark-skinned couple; exploration of police brutality and how we mobilize against it; and the concept of a future where we can escape from the murder of innocent black people. Like Waves, the movie is gorgeously lit and contains incredible performances. But despite all this, Waithe left Queen and Slim’s abundant possibilities in our imaginations, creating a pandering trauma porn full of plotholes and forced dialogue straight out of a slam poem.
The logistics of the story make little sense. The heroes drive from Ohio to Florida in two days without money, food, or water. Queen is supposedly a lawyer talented enough to get her uncle acquitted of murder straight out of law school, yet foolish enough to suggest running from police. We spend the entire two hours with Queen and Slim and learn almost nothing about the characters outside of their current situation. They fall for each other out of fear and proximity, not because of a genuine connection–a bleak allegory for the state of black love. And none of the characters who help Queen and Slim along their journey are black women, metaphorically erasing their involvement in #BlackLivesMatter and other anti-racist movements.
The movie’s end was the true nail in the coffin. Police graphically gun down Queen and Slim as they approach the plane meant to take them to freedom, but a finale where the lovers escaped to Cuba a la Assata Shakur would have been a revolutionary “fuck you” to the anti-black police state. An end where it was ambiguous as to whether they achieved icon status because of their success or their demise could have been brilliant. Even a denouement where the heroes perished without visuals that trigger black people’s collective historical trauma would have been acceptable. But with all of those options, Waithe chose to impart that not even in our wildest, blackest dreams can we possibly be free. After boasting about not taking any notes from white people and creating the film specifically for black audiences, her choices beg the question, “But did you really, though?”
While Black Twitter is ablaze with astute examinations of Queen and Slim’s shortcomings and black woman film critics like Jourdain Searles and Cassie Da Costa are taking the movie to task, there remains a faction of audience members and critics who think the movie is flawless. However there is an interesting phenomenon with black folks who enjoyed Waves and Queen and Slim. When faced with criticism, fans of the films rarely push back. In fact, the responses are variations of “Those are all valid critiques” or “Wow, I never thought of it that way but you’re right.”
These reactions point to the phenomenon of artistic identity politics. People align unquestioningly with black media simply because of its very existence, to the point that some of them don’t even go into the theater with the mind to critically engage. They will themselves to love the movie because they believe doing so is loving their community. In turn, they believe, this provides opportunities for black content creators.
However, we actually do both black artists and audiences a great disservice by not expecting more. It’s a fallacy to believe that if we don’t “root for everybody black”, regardless of artistic merit, then black media will cease to exist. Instead, this thinking potentially robs us of the opportunity to see better black films in the future. If we keep eating scraps, it’s harder to expect a four-course meal. This false narrative also arms white men like Trey Shults with the audacity to tell stories that don’t belong to them. Lena Waithe herself even said if we want people to stop producing bad black films, then we need to stop being afraid to critique them.