Over the course of four years, actor Daniel Kaluuya has amassed a catalog of film work that has loomed large in pop culture discourse, especially among Black folks. Those movies are 2017’s Get Out, 2019’s Queen & Slim, and this month’s Judas and the Black Messiah. You could add 2018’s Black Panther and Widows to this list based on film quality and Kaluuya’s performance, but I want to focus on the other three because they all have one thing in common: They all featured Daniel Kaluuya playing characters who meet traumatic ends.
In Queen & Slim, Kaluuya’s Slim is brutally gunned down by a police firing squad with his partner, a Black woman, by his side. In Get Out, the original script detailed Chris being swallowed by the system just as he was about to triumph over the racist Armitage family. And Judas and the Black Messiah, of course, is constructed around Fred Hampton’s assassination. Each murder is handled differently. Each takes its own approach to presenting Black death. Together, though, they suggest a connected conversation about what it means to put audiences through this type of trauma — and if, especially considering who is creating and consuming the movie, there is even a right way to do so.
Let’s start with the bad. Queen & Slim is the archetype of Black trauma porn in cinema, featuring a nonsensical script, illogical character motivations, and a plot that seems only concerned with steamrolling toward the most anti-Black ending possible. Pain permeates every aspect of Black life in the movie; even the sex scene is interspersed with clips of a Black Lives Matter protest and police brutality. The ending is unnecessarily brutal and cruel, both to the titular characters and to the viewer watching.
Since Queen & Slim was released, I’ve held that the movie was made without care for Black people, and its ending only furthers that point. Blood splatters and bullets fly like something out of an action movie, not one purportedly meant to celebrate Black love. In the end, Kaluuya’s character is on the ground dead, leaving us little to hold on to. His life, like the movie, is rendered pointless, the journey a ruse to lure us into needless pain.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Get Out. As you know, the movie ends with Kaluuya’s character strangling Rose Armitage as police lights flash on him. The assumption is that cops are going to see a Black man crouched over a dead White woman and gun him down. We’ve been trained to expect this based on the news we’d consumed in the years leading up to the movie, but also the fact that Get Out is about the terror of Whiteness that lurks in every shadowy corner of our worlds. If you watched the movie in theaters, you remember the collective groan as the audience expected the worst — and then the shocked relief when it’s revealed that the person in the car is Kaluuya’s friend Rod coming to save him, and all is well in the world.
The movie’s original ending, though, was going to have cops actually show up and ruin everything, just as the audience expected. The concept originally came about during the pre-Black Lives Matter years of the Obama presidency, when the mainstream narrative declared racism a thing of the past.
“In the beginning when I was first making this movie the idea was, ‘Okay, we’re in this post-racial world, apparently,’” writer and director Jordan Peele told the Another Round podcast. “That was the whole idea. People were saying, ‘We’ve got Obama so racism is over, let’s not talk about it.’ That’s what the movie was meant to address. Like look, you recognize this interaction. These are all clues, if you don’t already know, that racism isn’t over. […] So the ending in that era was meant to say, look, ‘You think race isn’t an issue? Well at the end, we all know this is how this movie would end right here.’”
But the world in 2017 was vastly different than the pre-Ferguson one we’d lived in when Get Out was originally conceptualized, and we were watching videos of police kill Black people on what felt like a daily basis. “It was very clear that the ending needed to transform into something that gives us a hero,” Peele continued. “That gives us an escape, gives us a positive feeling when we leave this movie. […] There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the audience go crazy when Rod shows up.”
Peele’s decision only highlights the lack of care taken in Queen & Slim, which was released two years later when racial unrest was just as high. Peele was willing to switch his movie based on the viewers’ temperature and desperation for joy, and he was absolutely right. We needed a happy ending for a Black hero.
This isn’t to say there isn’t ever a place for a Black character to die at the end of a movie, but there needs to be a reason beyond making people hurt. That’s where Judas and the Black Messiah comes in. Unlike Queen & Slim and Get Out, Judas didn’t have a choice about how it could end: It was based on the life and murder of Fred Hampton. Yet, the movie made clear that director Shaka King had considered the actual scene carefully.
I find myself torn about the finished product. Before we get to the actual killing of Hampton, there’s an extended scene of the FBI shooting into his apartment and killing young activists. There’s lots of blood; the set piece may last a beat too long. The shots that end Fred Hampton’s life, though, take place off-camera — with the audience instead fixated on the stone-faced reaction of his partner, Deborah Johnson.
That ending feels like a turning point in the discussion. The question has evolved past how we discussed Black death at the end of Queen & Slim from “how should we handle these scenes” to “should they exist at all?” Is it worth it to even make a movie like Judas if we know that there will eventually be Black trauma at the conclusion? Better yet, is there a way to tell a story like this without including the death at all?
Not to be lost in all of this is Daniel Kaluuya’s brilliance as he portrays each of these characters and how it weights their endings. In Queen & Slim, his wide-eyed naivete makes his demise even more tragic. While the dumbass script (sorry, but c’mon) makes it difficult to truly immerse ourselves in his story, Kaluuya’s intensity and confusion shows us a kid whose life got snuffed out far too soon. In his Oscar-nominated Get Out performance, his subdued reactions to the microaggressions he faced pulled us in, making us want to see him survive like our own lives were on the line. And finally, his portrayal of Fred Hampton is Black power personified — a performance that defied, empowers, and inspires.
Again, such power only amplifies the trauma of those lives ending. And if there’s a criticism of Judas to be had, it’s that the pacing of the movie sometimes feels more concerned with inching us closer to Hampton’s demise than sitting in the moments that defined him while he was living.
Alice Walker was talking about Zora Neale Hurston when in 2018 she said “Those who love us never leave us alone with our grief. At the moment they show us our wound, they reveal they have the medicine.” So often Black deaths in movies withhold the medicine, leaving us in our grief after we’ve trusted them with our emotional scars. Hollywood has never shown itself to be concerned with prescribing any healing in the wake of the Black trauma it cashes out on.
As Daniel Kaluuya’s star continues to rise, the types of roles he takes will hold larger meta-meanings; they won’t just reflect the characters he plays, but they’ll fuel narratives about Hollywood’s relationship with Blackness. Already, the deaths of his characters have become a topic of debate, of demands for a salve. The only resolution we have is that Queen & Slim is the absolute wrong way to go about ending a central Black character’s life. But as far as the right way? I’m not sure we’ve found it. And as too many of us know, we can’t always rewrite scripts to ensure the happiest endings.