Black Criticism Is Always Good — Especially When Black Art Isn’t

Welcome to “What’s Good,” where we break down what’s soothing, distracting, or just plain good in the streaming world with a “rooting for everybody Black” energy. Enjoy! 
What’s Good? Black art is good — but not always. And *spoiler alert* THAT’S OK. I usually use this space to tell you what to watch. I typically reserve this column for the pieces of pop culture I love so much I need everyone else to love them too. But when I love a TV show or movie, I’m the person who reads everything I can find about it — the good and the bad. Both are valid. Both help me either admire or understand the work even more. Critiquing means I care. But somewhere in the depths of the discourse about how Representation Matters™, we lost the plot. Somehow it was decided that the presence of a Black creator or Black actors onscreen is enough to render a project impenetrable. PSA: things aren’t inherently good just because they are Black — things aren’t inherently anything just because they are Black. The thirst for white acceptance or the fear that white gatekeepers will never greenlight a Black project again if we say anything bad about one seems to have overridden a basic tenet of art: the ability to consume, appreciate, and evaluate it as we please. 
The value of Black criticism — who gets to critique Black art and whether that art should be judgment-proof just by virtue of the fact that Black-led projects are still rare in Hollywood — has been up for debate in recent years as representation has increased. Since Queen & Slim divided our timelines (I liked it, until some very smart critics made me reconsider) and the reaction to Malcolm & Marie (which spent half the movie shitting on criticism) proved that stan culture has rendered thoughtful interrogation of works starring celebrities we love impossible without backlash to the backlash, it’s BEEN time to talk about the necessity of Black critics. Especially now, when every other Black-led project seems to be steeped in senseless trauma, it’s more imperative to have Black critics delving into which projects are constructive (The Underground Railroad) and which ones are destructive (Them).

When every other Black-led project seems to be steeped in senseless trauma, it’s imperative to have Black critics delving into which projects are constructive (The Underground Railroad) and which ones are destructive (Them).

Sure, it’s a little self-serving to devote an entire column to the importance of my own profession but the world of culture criticism is still overwhelmingly white and I’m tired of seeing Black critics deemed traitors to our race just for daring to think critically about the work we’ve just experienced. Plus, it’s not just bad Black projects that need to be critiqued by Black writers (and no, Michael Che, a fair yet mediocre review by a Black critic doesn’t mean that a publication is hiding behind that critic’s Blackness; it means your shit is mediocre). The good stuff needs critique too. One of my favourite recent reviews was The Undefeated’s Soraya McDonald’s stunning rumination on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the collision of “two Black Americas'' as she calls it. In her review, she examines the relationship between old vs. new, South vs. North, Levee (Chadwick Boseman) vs. Ma (Viola Davis), freedom vs. liberation and past vs. present. She does August Wilson’s masterpiece justice with masterful and poetic writing of her own, praising the nuance in his prose. A white critic couldn’t have done all of that. Oftentimes, art is supposed to be a mirror of society. And conversations surrounding art are only enriched and elevated by perspectives that capture the different facets of how it speaks to us. For too long, we've only been getting one viewpoint (read: old white men) — and our cultural understanding of art has been reduced because of it.
Another critic whose work I am obsessed with is Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastien. She did not like Ma Rainey. She called the dialogue “stilted” and “laughable” and denigrated the film as “a lifeless endeavour.” I disagree with Bastien (I really liked Ma Rainey) but when she eviscerates a film, it’s artful in its own right. Plus, she made some points. Bastien brought up discussions we absolutely need to be having about Black representation. In the review, Bastien writes, “Many of the [recent] works being made available — such as horror films and series, including Bad Hair, Lovecraft Country, and Antebellum — feel like they take advantage of an audience’s desire to see themselves onscreen without offering any of the potency or finesse necessary to make these stories work.” She’s right. A white critic couldn’t have done all of that either. 
So, to answer the question, Black criticism is good. Always. And necessary.                      
Who It’s Good For: Despite what the comment section of reviews would have you believe, Black critiques of Black art are actually good for business. They’re good for Black art. And whether the takes are negative or not, they are good for the betterment of Black creators. As Tonja Renée Stidhum wrote in a piece called If You Want to Protect Black Art, Protect Black Critique for The Root, it’s not as easy for Black creators who have to deal with the “structurally racist rigamarole” in Hollywood. Financing, distribution and publicity all depend on a system set up for people who look like us to fail. That fact then puts unfair pressure on Black artists to be all things to Black people, and for their work’s success to be a barometer of all Black success. But, Stidhum notes, “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.” SPEAK ON IT. 
When Lena Waithe was met with less-than-stellar reviews of the brutal, graphic and gratuitous depictions of Black trauma in the Amazon horror anthology series she produced called Them, she got defensive. “White male artists get chances all the time,” Waithe told POPSUGAR in reference to the show’s creator Little Marvin. “Nobody’s telling a white dude, ‘Hey, don’t do that,’ or maybe we are, but the truth is, Black artists deserve to be free to tell whatever story they want to tell. We at least deserve that.” What Black artists deserve is equity and to be judged on the quality of their work, not in relation to whiteness. 
Yes, white artists do get to fail more than Black artists but by that logic, we have to actually let Black artists fail. In my opinion, Them is a failure because of how it handles trauma (like pain is the priority and purpose of the art) and if we are not able to say that just because it was made by Black people, we are buying into the same Hollywood system that treats us as a monolith and keeps us out of the rooms that make the decisions about which stories should get Amazon series and which movies should get greenlit. 

Black voices writing about Black series can be just as important as the Black show writers themselves. They both exist in an ecosystem that doesn’t thrive without the other.

On the other hand, Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad understands the assignment and treats traumatic events in Black history with care, consideration and depth. Reggie Ugwo’s praise for the show and his handling of this profile in the New York Times of the visionaries behind the series proves that Black voices writing about Black series can be just as important as the Black show writers themselves. They both exist in an ecosystem that doesn’t thrive without the other. 
I understand not wanting to bash Black creators — I am constantly “rooting for everybody Black” — but people need to stop viewing fair criticism as a public berating and see it as it is: an interrogation and extension of the work. Sometimes that analysis may include a larger cultural context (when a work involves trauma for example) and sometimes it’s just going to tell you whether something is worth your time. It doesn’t have to be more than that. But the best people to discern whether Black art is aiming for cultural relevance and failing or whether it’s just a celebration of our joy and humanity are the critics who know Black humanity intimately. So, you know, actual Black people
If Black art is supposed to be for us and by us, why shouldn’t Black criticism have the same energy? 
How Good Is It? You know that meme of Jennifer Hudson throwing her shoe at a singer on The Voice like she just heard the voice of God leave a human body in a church pew? When I read a good piece of criticism, that’s what I do in my head. I throw my proverbial shoes. 
No one is better at giving us our own well-deserved flowers than Black folk. And no one is better at holding artists accountable in real time than us. Black criticism is good because as we strive towards a Hollywood that is no longer held up by gatekeepers and built on barriers that exclude Black excellence, it’s time to take whiteness out of the equation. If there’s no quest for white acceptance, there’s no fear that Black backlash will hinder that pursuit. This isn’t about white people at all. Sometimes, Black art is our business and focusing more on art and criticism being in conversation instead of in opposition will lead to a liberation even duelling timelines can’t deny. 
What Else Is Good?
• As mentioned, The Underground Railroad is very good, but Barry Jenkins’ video essay The Gaze about the “Black gaze” in his work is even better.
• Want good Black art? Watch Miss Juneteenth, Fast Color, Selah and the Spades, and theThe Forty Year Old Version. Then read Lovia Gyarkye, Soraya McDonald, my brilliant colleague Ineye Komonibo, and me on each of those works. 
Good Trouble has taken over my life so the 31 episodes (two seasons) of this show I have invested in have forced me to tell everyone in earshot to come on this journey with Callie and Mariana Adams-Foster, my girl Malika, and their coterie family with me.
• As always, defunding the police.

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