I read Danez Smith’s Black Movie fast, in less than an hour, as my cat alternately tried to dig up my sheets, hunted for earplugs under my pillow, and purred against me. I could not put it down, and I cried through almost the entire book.
The poems of Black Movie spool out across the pages in a series of scenes we’ve seen, or heard, or read splashed across the paper, except Smith writes with love and anguish of their own community. Many of the poems are built around extant movies or folktales: Sleeping Beauty, Boyz n the Hood, The Secret Garden, The Lion King. But that’s about the extent of their similarities. Our sleeping beauty, named Jamal, never wakes up, and “All the red in this cartoon is painted with blood: / the apples, the velvet robe, Jamal’s cold mouth.”
“Jim Crow, Rock Star” is a horror story built on history, the imagery of anti-Black violence dripping from every word. “The Secret Garden in the Hood” is a story of children gone too soon, to gun violence or despair. The multi-part “Lion King in the Hood” is exquisite and awful, a look both at the intense, anti-Black violence of structural racism and at the devastation from gun violence and the carceral state.
In a way, Black Movie reminds me of Prince of Cats, Ron Wembly’s beautiful, heartbreaking setting of Romeo and Juliet in a city reeling with gang warfare. I’ve never been one for Romeo and Juliet, though a lot of the quotes are on fire—but Wembly brought it to life for me, in a way far more stark and relatable than I’d ever seen. Much like Wembly, Smith takes fairytales and folklore and stories we’ve all heard before, then flicks their hand and shows us the ugly underbelly, the horror wrought by structural racism and its accompanying violence. Prince of Cats even has its lighter moments—and, while I won’t say Black Movie has any light moments, exactly, it ends with a celebration of Black families and Black joy.
Black Movie is a testament to Smith’s skill, their ability to craft a world at once beautiful and horrible, to make it impossible for the reader to look away. It is powerful and achingly timeless. I had to keep checking the publication date as I read, because it felt far too raw and recent to have been published in 2015—but it was. It’s heartbreaking and powerful and demands to be read.