Scholars have conceptualized race as skin color, which for Black and brown people, makes them more vulnerable to the violences of the prison industrial complex. Other scholars who focus on police brutality tend to focus on Black men as victims, although individuals of marginalized genders increasingly have similar experiences. This research attempts to analyze the implications of depicting Black trauma—with trauma defined specifically in relation to police violence—and resistance in film through the films Queen and Slim (2019) and The Hate U Give (2018). Furthermore, it seeks to analyze how this trauma and resistance are gendered. Using a content analysis, I compared these two films in terms of their similar act structure as well as themes of Black criminality, women’s roles in relation to police brutality, and patterns of resistance and refusal. I find that depictions of Black criminality in both films were consistent with conceptualizations of race that defined skin color as a trait producing vulnerability to police violence and that both films centered Black men as especially vulnerable victims of policing. Furthermore, I found that these two films—in their efforts to depict resistance—often conflated Black people’s survival under white supremacist structures with protest and, ultimately, martyrdom.
In the wake of police terror against Black people in 2020, which is by no means a new phenomenon but which has a heightened visibility due to the advancements of technology and social media, I explore the implications of police violence as Black trauma. This research focuses on film because movies are not only a reflection of societal issues and the perceptions of those issues but they likewise influence people’s perceptions on these issues. However, it is imperative to focus research on traumas, especially trauma due to oppressive white supremacist patriarchal structures, on the rejection of its source. Furthermore, depictions of resistance are necessary to current understandings of the possibilities that are opened up when violence is refused. Thus, my research question is as follows: What are the implications of depicting Black trauma and resistance through police violence, and how is this trauma and resistance gendered in film over the last decade? To answer these questions, I examine two recent films about police brutality, The Hate U Give and Queen and Slim, by conducting a content analysis on their act structure, plot, and themes pertaining to criminality, the gendering of trauma, and resistance.
Conceptualizations of Race
In chapter five of Harlem World: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America titled “White Harlem: Toward the Performance Limits of Blackness,” John L. Jackson Jr., defines race phenotypically through skin color and thus race is a physical marker of Black subjection to discrimination and violence. More specifically, race and/or skin color is reason for arrest and/or incarceration.1 Because this discrimination is not without context, race as skin color/evidence of subjection to state sanctioned violence links race to a socio-historical location; race links a group of individuals, in this case Black Americans (Harlemites) to a shared ancestry and generational trauma. One of the Harlemites Jackson interviews, Zelda, defines her race, her blackness, as being “brown-skinned” but also as key to her membership to a community, saying, “We came over here on slave ships.”2 Although this is only one of multiple conceptualizations of race demonstrated through Jackson’s interviews with Black Harlemites, it is especially pertinent to police voice against Black people because how one is perceived as belonging to a specific racial group directly determines their vulnerability to state violence.
However, as Jackson demonstrates through an analysis of the assumption of white innocence and Black criminality, race can be defined by absence, by lack. For white folks, this is not just an absence of “flavor” or culture that Black Harlemites articulate, but an absence of dangerousness. “Is the ‘white Harlem’ one of unexamined condemnations, of unfounded and unverified assumptions that link, as Mary Douglas might argue, a certain kind of impunity to danger?”3 While white people in Harlem are afforded “impunity to danger,” Black people are presumed guilty of crime and dangerousness.4 The concept of dangerousness, or as Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, “The Problem of Innocence,” which I will address later on in this paper, prescribed to Black criminality is essential to understanding police violence as a form of Black trauma. What made white Harlem safe from danger is that white people wanted to keep Black people out while simultaneously using Black culture (clubbing in Harlem, for example) as entertainment.
In addition to Jackson’s conceptualizations of Blackness, Marquis Bey and Theodora Sakellerides define Blackness in their article “When We Enter: The Blackness of Rachel Dolezal” as predicated on the spatial and temporal realities of race; Blackness is not simply a “what” but also a “when” and “where” which links Black people according to histories of deprivation, dispossession, captivity, and death but also according to family heritage, culture, land, and belonging.5 As Jackson shows as well, Blackness is not just about what you can see, and, as expanded through Christina Sharpe’s The Wake, Black people are living through the present of the “when” and “where” of slavery.
Police Violence as Black Trauma
In chapter one of The Wake: On Blackness and Being, Sharpe starts to define the wake according to her personal experiences which demonstrate the trauma inherent in existing as a Black person—subjection to surveillance, state sanctioned violence, scarcity, and dispossession. Being Black is to live through the wake, and to live through the wake is to exist as Sharpe describes it, living, “in the afterlives of slavery” and in close proximity to death. However, it also represents existence and survival: “our insist[ence] being Black into the wake.6 Most importantly, Sharpe asks what possibilities would be opened up if we came to accept Black death in America as normative, as something that necessarily constitutes American “democracy” and “justice,” if we recognized it as “the ground we walk on.”7 In Queen and Slim and The Hate U Give police violence and Black people’s vulnerability to premature death are accepted as normative, and, especially through the imagery and symbolism in Queen and Slim as an extension of the trauma Black people endured during slavery.
In “Police Brutality, Over-Policing, and Mass Incarceration in African American Film,” Ryan Westerbeck observes Black films over the last three decades of filmmaking. These include: Do the Right Thing (1989), Boyz n the Hood (1991), Set it Off (1996), Training Day (2001), and Get Out (2017). Westerbeck finds that the relationship between Black communities and the police as depicted through these films is either antagonistic or neutral. He also finds that this relationship goes beyond a few “bad apples” in the police force; Black characters in these movies understand police brutality to be an indictment of the entire criminal justice system. Because policing is recognized as inherently violent, Black cops are not seen as progressive in the eyes of the Black community.8
Women and Police Violence
In addition to analyzing the relationship between Black people and the police in the films Westerbeck analyzes, he also observes how perceptions of police violence are gendered. He writes that in all of the films he analyzed except for one, Set it Off, police violence is depicted as only affecting Black men, which is analogous to how men are prioritized in reality as the primary victims of this brutality. However, Black women are predisposed to face sexual and physical violence (due to both their gender and their race) from police officers. Consequently, depictions of the impacts of policing that center Black men erase the trauma Black women are put through when they come in contact with police.9
As Breea C. Willingham argues in “Black Women and State Sanctioned Violence: A History of Victimization and Exclusion,” these depictions of Black men as central subjects of this violence is entirely false and exclusionary, especially as Black and brown women are criminalized, brutalized, and sexually assaulted by police officers.10 Willingham pulls from Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought to discuss the prioritization of Black men that creates a false sense of unity within the Black community. Collins states “those proclaiming that Black men experience a more severe form of racial oppression than Black women routinely counsel African American women to subjugate our needs to those of Black men.11 In response, Collins proposes an intersectional approach to racial oppression, one that includes the dual marginalization of being Black and a woman, which is in contrast to movements of Black nationalism and Black conservatism, for example, that have left out the struggles Black women face.12
The Problem of Innocence
Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues in “Abolition Geography: The Problem of Innocence,” that central to understanding criminalization is the focus, even by anti-prison activists, on innocence and guilt. Gilmore speaks from the point of view of a prison abolitionist, someone who envisions the total eradication of the prison industrial complex and its replacement with systems of support and care. Thus she argues that looking for the “innocent” incarcerated folks among the “guilty” to the especially dangerous (see: non-violent drug offenders and other groups marked especially vulnerable) is a tactic of counterinsurgency that supports the expansion of the Prison Industrial Complex:
Human sacrifice rather than innocence is the central problem that organizes the Carceral geographies of the prison industrial complex. Indeed, for abolition to insist on innocence is to surrender politically because innocence evades a problem abolition is compelled to confront: how to diminish and remedy harm as against finding better forms of punishment.13
This is relevant to the focus of this research on Black trauma through police violence because Black people are denied the privilege of innocence due to racial capitalism and criminalization.
Methods and Data
My research method for this study consisted of a content analysis of the films Queen and Slim and the Hate U Give. In order to compare the two films’ depictions of police violence as Black trauma, I analyzed them both based on their narrative structure and on themes relevant to both films. The themes I observed throughout these films during my analysis were Black criminality, the gendering of police violence, and the tension between resistance and refusal of state oppression and martyrdom.
Queen and Slim begins when Angela Johnson (Queen, played by Jodie Turner-Smith) and Ernest Hines (Slim, played by Daniel Kaluuya) meet up at a restaurant through the online dating app Tinder. As Slim is driving Queen home from the restaurant, he is pulled over by a white police officer for swerving his car. The situation escalates, resulting in Slim scuffling on the ground with the officer, Queen getting shot by the officer, and Slim grabbing the gun and killing the officer. This takes place in act 1 of the movie. Act 2 and 3 unfold as Queen and Slim are on the run, metaphorical and literal Black fugitives, from the scene of the murder as the authorities chase them.
The Hate U Give is similar in that the inciting incident of the movie is also right at the beginning of the film. On their way home from a party where a shooting occurred, Khalil (Algee Smith) and Starr (Amanda Stenberg) are pulled over by a white police officer. What was initially a stop for failure to signal to turn ends up with Khalil bleeding out on the ground while Starr and the cop who shot him watch. The rest of the film narrative arc concerns Starr grappling with the trauma of her friend’s death and also how to become a voice against the violence Black people face at the hands of the police.
Because both films began with an incident of police brutality which the characters in the films struggle through for the rest of the narration, I found these to be adequate sources from which to acquire data in comparison to each other. Additionally, because Queen and Slim inverts the tale of Black death by turning Angela Johnson and Ernest Hines into fugitives who must escape, but inevitably cannot, the fate of their crime of self defense in opposition to The Hate U Give, which begins with Black death at the hands of police, I found it necessary to note the implications of the prolonged—yet nonetheless premature—murder of Black people by the state as seen through the characters Queen and Slim versus the rupture of trauma—leaving no space for hope—resulting from the immediate death of Khalil.
In terms of the significance of the themes I chose for my research method, I paid close attention to the depictions of media responses in both films to contrast the ways in which Black subjects are regarded as dangerous criminals as opposed to white cops who approached and inflicted violence upon them and are shown as innocence and incapable of guilt. I observed how this dichotomy produces Black criminality which ultimately justifies Black trauma and death. Furthermore, due to my interest in how police violence in film is gendered, I analyzed Queen and Starr’s roles as women alongside their male counterparts (Slim and Khalil) who are the initial targets of the police. Finally, due to these movies’ acclaim as “protest” films, I also analyzed them for themes of resistance and refusal of state-sanctioned violence.
Innocence versus Dangerousness
In the opening scene of Queen and Slim, even before Slim is pulled over by the police, the theme of Black criminality which is synonymous with Black guilt and dangerousness is brought up. On their date, Slim asks Queen what was so horrible about her day. Queen (who is an attorney) responds that one of her clients was executed.
“The state decided to execute my client.”
“I didn’t know that was still legal here.”
“Yep. It’s legal in thirty-one states, and Ohio happens to be one of them.”
“Was he innocent?”
“Even if he’s not, the state shouldn’t decide whether he lives or dies.”14
Although Queen never says that this client is Black, this case alludes to the reality of Black incarcerated folk on death row whose advocates—in what appears to be in support of their freedom—attempt to qualify how deserving they are of death based on their innocence. Queen rejects this idea when she neglects to answer Slim’s question to assert that the state should not have the power to execute anyone, regardless of what they’ve done. Her neglect to answer is especially important, because it doesn’t satisfy Slim nor the audience; she doesn’t give him or us the authority to determine whether someone is irredeemable or not, whether or not they are deserving of death.
When Slim is pulled over by a police officer on his way to take Queen home, the pattern of Black dangerousness and guilt can also be observed. Slim’s actions in front of the officer—the way he makes sure to state that he is reaching for his wallet, keeps his hands in full view of the cop the entire time, and shifts his speech to a very polite and cautious tone—indicate that one wrong move could incriminate him. Despite his caution, the officer still speaks to him brusquely and conducts an illegal warrant, assuming that Slim has drugs in the back of his car.
After the scene escalates, requiring Slim to shoot the officer in self defense, Queen remarks that Slim is “a Black man that killed a cop and then took his gun.” Slim immediately defends himself, stating that he is not a criminal, to which Queen replies, “You are now.” Surely enough, when the two are running from the authorities over the next couple of days, media depictions label them “armed and dangerous” and the only clip of the interaction with the officer that is played is the one where Slim murders the white cop. Their Blackness, combined with their audacity to defend themselves, makes Queen and Slim dead men walking.
In The Hate U Give there is a similar marker of Black criminality through dangerousness and guilt ascribed to Starr’s friend, Khalil. The officer’s defense for shooting Khalil is that his hairbrush looked like a gun; this mistake is not unfamiliar to most Black audiences. Black people’s wallets, phones, and other objects unlike weapons, have been mistaken for guns, resulting in their deaths. The hairbrush as a gun is a representation of Black people’s presumed criminality based on the assumption that whatever they are carrying is most likely a gun, most likely to mark them guilty. The media only worsens Khalil’s presumed guilt. When Starr finally decides to go to the press to speak on Khalil’s behalf as a primary witness to his murder, she is pressed to answer questions about his involvement selling drugs with the King Lords, a gang from Starr’s neighborhood, Garden Heights. His involvement serves as proof that Khalil was a criminal against the perception of the white cop, who the media captures as a good guy who is being treated like a monster.
Gendering of Trauma
Queen initially is portrayed as a very authoritative and emotionally detached woman character, while Slim is more soft and easy going. This dynamic is shown immediately on their date, as Slim questions why she is on a date with someone she isn’t really interested in. Her response is curt and detached when she replies that she is alone. When Slim is pulled over, she uses her knowledge as an attorney to attempt to guide the situation questioning why the officer pulled him over and asserting that he needs a warrant to search the car. She even steps out of the car to defend Slim during the encounter with the police officer which results in her getting grazed in the leg by the officer’s bullet. Contrary to typical descriptions of Black men being the sole targets of police, Queen is also impacted physically and violently by this interaction with a white officer. Additionally, although she takes on a leadership role, for example, deciding that her and Slim will flee the scene and throw their phones out the window so as not to be traced despite Slim’s protests and doubt, she does not assume the role of his sole caretaker throughout the film. Eventually, she opens up to him about what makes her vulnerable—the fact that her mother was murdered by her uncle and she defended his case as a young lawyer—and this brings them closer together, even close enough to love each other romantically. At the end of the film, when their plan to fly to Cuba is foiled, they are both murdered by police officers.
In the Hate U Give, however, the onus is placed completely on Starr to channel her trauma and pain into activism on Khalil’s behalf. She is reduced to a witness who bears the responsibility of defending his innocence. Her father, Maverick, even pushes her to go to the media, cutting short her period of mourning so that she can fight injustice, even if that means she is put in danger by making herself vulnerable to the King Lords by discussing their activity on television. Additionally, police violence is portrayed as something happening particularly to Black men, first to Khalil, then to Maverick, and then to Starr’s little brother.
Resistance and Martyrdom
Although Queen and Slim receive praise as a film representing a resistance to police brutality, the characters Queen and Slim themselves never claim to be protestors or even activists. In a scene with a boy named Junior (the son of the man who fixes Queen and Slim’s car), Queen and Slim talk with him about immortality. Junior says to them:
“I really hope y’all make it. Just know that even if you don’t, it’ll be okay.”
“‘Cause then you’ll be immortal.”15
Junior continues to say that he could die today and that it would be worth it because people would remember him. Though he appears proud of his willingness to die in the Black struggle against police brutality (a struggle he only alludes to), Queen does not wish to be immortal: “As long as your family knows you were here, that’s all that matters.” After their conversation, Junior takes a picture of Queen and Slim sitting on the hood of their car, a picture they do not know at the time is immortalizing them. When they die, this picture will be framed as a mural in remembrance of their lives or maybe also of their refusal, despite the fact that they just wanted to live and to love.
Starr doesn’t desire to be a martyr, but she does assume the face the movement that arises throughout The Hate U Give in protest of Khalil’s death. She does so with strength and bravery, though, that crosses over into carelessness and ignorance. She rushes into a protest, against her mother’s orders, wielding a microphone amidst tear gas thrown by the police. She also steps between her little brother and a police officer’s gun at one point in the film. Her actions almost get her killed, and at no point does she prioritize her mother’s warning to be safe, because she feels the responsibility of a hero on her shoulders. It’s easy to forget that she’s just a girl.
The first continuity with the literature that this analysis of Queen and Slim and The Hate U Give has shown is Jackson’s conceptualization of race that links race to skin tone and thus to discrimination based on the supposed criminality of individuals coded as Black. This is shown not only by the fact that Slim and Khalil are pulled over by white officers because of their skin color, but also because of the way the media villainizes them based on their Blackness. Additionally, the problem of innocence and guilt (and the way Blackness has been conceptualized) presented in the literature was consistent with the depiction of Black criminality in both films. The news in both films that covered Queen and Slim’s escape as well as Khlalil’s murder displayed the supposed innocence granted to white cops, confirming that whiteness, despite being the source of terror in these films, is immune to accusations of guilt: Queen and Slim, despite defending themselves against violence, and Khalil, daring to question why he is being pulled over, are labeled “armed and dangerous” and “gang member” respectively.
Another continuity with the literature, primarily in terms of The Hate U Give, is the pressure put on Black women to refuse white supremacy and gendered oppression; they are elevated to statuses which require them to protect and/or defend Black male characters from the ramifications of policing. These statuses require them to suppress their own emotional and physical vulnerabilities in the service of resistance. It is difficult to claim that Starr and Queen neglect the oppressions they face due to their gender because gendered oppression is not a subject of either movie, but Queen’s role as a lawyer and Starr’s role as a friend and witness position them to take the lead in both films. However, as opposed to Queen, Starr is propelled to the level of activist, someone donned with the responsibility to represent a movement for Black people before her own safety.
I did not expect to find, however, that themes of resistance to state-sanctioned violence and premature Black death would pose the danger of being conflated with survival. Although Queen and Slim are celebrated during the film as resisters of the state—actual protests on their behalf occur that evoke Black Lives Matter protests—and one man who recognizes them says “Fight the power!” in their direction. What seems to be forgotten, however, is that Queen and Slim simply want to live.
The entire movie follows them attempting to escape their inevitable death, one that they are terrified of, and never do they express any desire to be “immortal.” Because Queen and Slim are celebrated as people they did not purport to be, the mural of them sitting on a car hood together at the end threatens to glorify them as martyrs instead of mourn them as Black people who were killed. Although Starr does not desire to be a Black martyr, she is praised, especially by her father, for channeling her pain into something substantive: fighting on behalf of Khalil. The need to frame her as someone who has overcome, fueled by the trauma watching her friend bleed out has caused, also dangerously posits trauma as something to be romanticized for the heroes it creates.
Ultimately, this research has presented how the depictions of police violence and resistance to said violence are shown in the films Queen and Slim and The Hate U Give through the decisions Black subjects Angela Johnson (Queen), Ernest Hines (Slim) and Starr. Their reactions to brutality—whether in the form of escape, mourning, or activism—open up the different ways film perceive the realities of Black people as victims of white supremacy but also as agents of escape. However, the line between the glorification of violence in order to portray resistance and activism is still to be explored; these films not only are reflections of society but have the potential to influence the perceptions of those who watch, and thus how people come to see resistance in relation to violence. Further research might require interviews with individuals watching films that depict police violence against Black people to gauge more direct implications post viewing such narratives.
- John L. Jackson Jr., “White Harlem: Toward the Performative Limits of Blackness,” Harlem World: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America (University of Chicago Press, 2001), 168.
- Jackson, “White Harlem,” 168.
- Jackson, “White Harlem,” 177.
- Jackson, “White Harlem,” 177.
- Marquis Bey and Theodora Sakellarides, “When We Enter: The Blackness of Rachel Dolezal,” The Black Scholar: Journal of Black Studies and Research 46, no. 4 (December 2016), 38.
- Christina Elizabeth Sharpe, “The Wake,” In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, (Duke University Press, 2016), 11.
- Sharpe, “The Wake,” 7.
- Ryan Westerbeck, “Police Brutality, Over-Policing, and Mass Incarceration in African American Film,” Journal of Black Studies 51, no. 3 (April 2020): 213-227.
- Westerbeck, “Police Brutality, Over-Policing, and Mass Incarceration in African American Film.”
- Breea C. Willingham, “Black Women and State-Sanctioned Violence: A History of Victimization and Exclusion,” Canadian Review of American Studies 48, no. 1, ( Oct 2017): 77-94.
- Patricia Hill Collins, “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images,” Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Routledge, 2000), 165.
- Collins, “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images,” 166.
- Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2018. “Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence,” Tabula Rasa 28 (January 2018): 57-77.
- Queen and Slim, Directed by M. Matsoukas (Universal Pictures, 2019).
- Queen and Slim, Matsoukas.