Lena Waithe, Melina Matsoukas, Jodie Turner-Smith, and Daniel Kaluuya go deep on the ride-or-die love story set in racist America
Warning, spoilers for Queen & Slim below
American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois said: “Either America will destroy ignorance, or ignorance will destroy the United States.” His words, despite being published over a century ago, seem more relevant than ever. In director Melina Matsoukas’s genre-defying debut film, Queen & Slim, the two protagonists fall victim to this dilemma – amid a nightmarish version of events, two ill-matched, ordinary strangers find themselves facing an awful decision: to ride or die.
Of the two characters, Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) is the uptight one, a closed-off defense attorney who has just lost a client to the death penalty, who is in desperate need of a distraction. Slim (Daniel Kaluuya), in contrast, is a simple being – he works at Costco and drives a nondescript white sedan with the license plate, ‘TRUSTGOD’. Brought together by a Tinder date, the evening starts out pretty unremarkable, and a second date looks unlikely. Fate has other ideas though – a violent white police officer pulls them over as Slim drives Queen home, and in an increasingly horrible, race-fuelled chain of events, Slim ends up killing the cop in self-defense. With nowhere to go, this unlikely duo embark on a cat and mouse chase across the American south – to Cuba, ideally – and fall in love on the way.
Much like Matsoukas’ music video for Beyonce’s Formation, Queen & Slim is a celebration of “black excellence”, written by Master of None’s Lena Waithe, and scored by Dev Hynes, whose delicate string arrangements linger in the spaces between tracks by Vince Staples, Syd, Ms Lauryn Hill, and Moses Sumney. “It was black as fuck and it was entertaining,” Matsoukas tells Dazed in London’s Soho Hotel. She’s sitting next to Waithe, perched on a chair in a pastel tracksuit.
Queen & Slim is not just a cinematic experience, but an aesthetic act of protest, both agree. “I love the balance of being able to put your perspective and your political thoughts and critiques on society in a way that's also entertaining,” explains Matsoukas. A large part of this is reflected in the dialogue – bouncy badinage between Queen and Slim, rapid-fire sparring, conversations with various people they encounter along the way. They seek shelter with Queen’s pimp uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) and later a wealthy white couple (Chloë Sevigny and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea), which unexpectedly become crucial moments for their off-beat love story. “It’s genre defying, you know?” quips Matsoukas. “It starts off as this rom-com and quickly becomes a horror story, which turns into a love story that's wrapped in humour.”
Police brutality isn’t the film’s central plot line, but rather, the pervading backdrop on which the story begins. Despite this, some critics have accused the filmmakers of ‘trauma porn’, or exploiting black trauma for mass appeal, something that Matsoukas adamantly rejects: “That's the point of powerful cinema. It's supposed to reflect the times, it's supposed to cause disruption, it's supposed to cause you to think, it's supposed to cause discomfort. That's how you create change and how you've created something with real impact.”
For Waithe? “The news is trauma porn,” she says, smirking. “Some people called the Harlem Renaissance dangerous because ‘this literature might stir folks up’, and I’m like, ‘thank god it did’, because if they’d written something nice and sweet, what would be the point?”
Matsoukas adds: “What's crazy is that there’s a criticism when it comes to our film in black cinema, but you don't see that about holocaust films, or mob movies that get made and honoured.”
Matsoukas’ protagonists aren’t natural born killers – they’re regular people, which makes it all the more captivating when footage of the incident goes viral, and they become folk heroes, figureheads for black radicalism and resistance. This tension between the personal and universal is explored again when they meet a 14-year-old boy, who calls them celebrities, to which Slim replies something to the effect of “I’d rather be alive”. “But why be alive now when you can be immortal in death?” he responds.
“It’s an emotional prison. It’s like (black people) feel like we need to be excellent, we need to show up in a certain way in order to prove it wrong that these things are not fair and are not true” – Jodie Turner-Smith
“What’s fascinating with Slim is that he’s content, he doesn’t want or desire it,” Daniel Kaluuya says, sitting opposite with his legs stretched onto a coffee table. It reminds me of a line where Turner-Smith’s character turns to Kaluuya’s Slim, saying, “I’m an excellent lawyer”, to which he replies, unimpressed: “Why do black people always have to be excellent? Why can’t we just be normal?”
He says that it was taken from a conversation he had with Waithe during filming about black trauma: “I mentioned that the quest for excellence is a symptom of trauma, because why would you want to be excellent? Do you know how hard it is?” He pauses. “What’s fascinating with Slim is that he’s content, he doesn’t want or desire it. I’m sitting in a situation where I wasn’t happy with my life as a kid, and I was like, ‘I’m going to get it’, but that’s a symptom of taking on responsibility as a child that you probably shouldn’t have, someone should have stepped in.” Turner-Smith agrees: “It’s an emotional prison. It’s like we feel like we need to be excellent, we need to show up in a certain way in order to prove it wrong that these things are not fair and are not true.”
There’s been much debate in recent years as to whether black British actors should play American roles, but Kaluuya maintains that it’s no different. “My experiences with the police, because I understood being out of control in the situation of being trapped in a narrative of you that has nothing to do with you but how people see you. That really spoke to me,” he explains.
While some critics have been quick to dub Queen & Slim the ‘black Bonnie & Clyde’, such comparisons are reductive. The lead characters in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film commit their crimes out of nihilistic boredom, whereas Matsoukas’ protagonists have no choice but to run from a system so clearly penned against them, and they’re horrified by it. In the film’s closing moments, after two exhaustingly tense hours of wondering ‘will-they-won’t-they’ make it, the pair are shot down at the hands of a police shooting squad, moments before they’re meant to take a private plane to Cuba.
What follows shows the pair take on a new existence: their faces are plastered onto giant murals, and printed onto T-shirts worn by demonstrators, who protest their passing across the country. In death, they become immortal, a poster couple for anti-racism and standing up to police brutality. But they’re also two lives lost to a racist system rigged against them. It’s horrific to watch, but Waithe tells me this is the point: “To me, people shouldn't be outraged by two fictitious characters dying on a movie screen, but they should be outraged by all the black bodies in the streets being killed by police officers unjustly.”