Directed by: Melina Matsoukas
Written by: Lena Waithe
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Indya Moore, Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers), Chloë Sevigny, Sturgill Simpson
Queen & Slim starring Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya as the title characters, was getting heaps of praise before and during its Thanksgiving weekend release. Forbes recently called the film, in which a Black couple is on the run after killing a police officer (Sturgill Simpson), a rebuke to Green Book, for one. The Los Angeles Times called it “bold.” The Seattle Times called it “powerful” and “devastating.” Probably the biggest cultural push it has received was from writer and online cultural gatekeeper Roxane Gay. She called “The [B]lackest film I’ve ever seen.”
“The script was so well written, so [B]lack, so honest,” she wrote on Twitter. Well, I wish that was my experience.
Instead, what I got from Lena Waithe, who wrote the script, and Melina Matsoukas, who directed, was a beautifully shot, yet highly annoying and insulting experience.
Blackness for who?
As my sister and I sat in the theater, squirming in our seats and looking at each other each time a ridiculous character choice happened, I wondered what kind of discussion about Blackness is this film trying to have? As a Black person, what am I supposed to be getting out of it? Unfortunately, I never got an answer.
Black people aren’t a monolith. This is a phrase that is often repeated, because it is true. We don’t all think alike or behave the same. However, there’s always the temptation for people, particularly people in online discourse, to start acting as if Black people should all like the same things or have the same experiences. While Black people are quick to call out when a White person tries to lump Black people together, we need to call ourselves out as well, because we do it to each other all the time. Blackness, as a cultural construct, is sometimes mined for content by other Black people in nearly the same way other culture vultures do.
A prime example is “activist” DeRay, who hobnobs with the head of Twitter, the same platform that has historically left underrepresented groups unprotected from harassment. DeRay, in his tired blue puffy jacket, has turned the noble art of activism into a meme, a trope, a thing one does to gain online clout. He was famously arrested in Baton Rouge, LA, but somehow a camera was there just to catch the right, made-for-magazine moment of him looking down the barrel of the lens, defiant in his Twitter shirt. That shirt shows just how much of a commodity Black pain has become and how Black and non-Black people alike use that pain for commercial gain.
DeRay certainly isn’t the only one who has twisted Blackness into a commercialized, meme-able tool for popularity. The trope of Black people always having cookouts, always playing Spades, always wearing braids, always being perfectly Afrocentric, always being in some sort of motion of performing the “carefree” ideal—it’s tiring, especially since that’s not the reality. The reality is that all of us, as Black people, are trying to find our way. We aren’t always the most perfectly Afrocentric. We aren’t always hanging out with family or friends. Some of us don’t even know how to play Spades or see its importance in any facet of life. But does that negate our Blackness? Does not being a “carefree” cartoon of ourselves mean we aren’t Black enough? I think removing that pressure to be “carefree” and “unbothered” makes us more relatable to each other within the diaspora. We aren’t trying to posture to each other about how Black we are; if we remove the pressure, we can accept each other and their experience of Blackness. We as a diaspora can be richer for it.
But yet, Queen & Slim isn’t interested in that discussion. Instead, it’s more interested in the DeRay side of things. It’s a Twitter “Stay Woke” shirt, mining itself for content, posturing to itself, trying to convince its audience as well as itself that it is, indeed, the Blackest movie ever made. But what a silly notion, trying to live up to that statement. How can Queen & Slim be the Blackest movie ever if it has to constantly prove to itself that it’s worthy of exploring Blackness?
Over the course of the film, characters stop to have faux-meaningful dialogue. Choice lines:
“Pictures aren’t just for vanity. They’re proof of your existence.”
“I want [a man] to love me so deeply I’m not afraid to show him how ugly I can be. I want him to show me wounds I never knew I had. But I don’t want him to make the wounds go away–I want him to hold my hand while I nurse them myself–and then I want him to cherish the bruises they leave behind.”
These lines can mean something deeper, especially the second line about finding someone to love. But the they are delivered in a way that’s entirely too precious, too high-falutin for its own good.
Along with that, there are shoe-horned shout-outs to Black pop culture staples via conversation, like when Queen asked Slim if he liked a certain song before or after he saw Love Jones, or when Slim asks Queen if she liked Fat Luther Vandross better than Skinny Luther Vandross. What do these conversations prove and why are they being used as litmus tests for Blackness? What the film fails to understand is that in the grand scheme of things, most Black people don’t care when you liked a song from Love Jones. We especially don’t care which version of Luther you liked because any version of Luther is amazing.
But it’s this policing of culture that Queen & Slim also, wrongly, puts in its messaging about what Blackness is, which illustrates the overall issue with the film. It’s so steeped in gatekeeping Blackness that the discourse around the film has become just that—gatekeeping. Just like what happened with A Wrinkle in Time, in which people messaged me after reading my review, saying they felt like couldn’t hate the film because of the discourse surrounding it, I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who feel like they can’t give their true opinions on this film for fear of backlash. I would be more afraid myself, but I’m at a point where I literally don’t care anymore. And besides, the conversations about this film need to be had. If they’re not, how are we going to move our culture as a diaspora forward? We can’t be afraid to question our fellow Black people, even if they are making content for us to consume. Probably, we should especially question our fellow Black people when they are making content for us to consume, because they are also making content that others will consume to learn about us.
So, with all of this said, who was this film made for? What kind of Blackness is on display for us to see and to whom does it speak to? For me, a person who has had a long-standing relationship with my Blackness, I can’t squeeze any meaning out of the film at all. All I can gain from the film is annoyance at how it is trafficking in a trope-y, social media-infused version of Blackness that undermines how vast and profound the Black experience actually is.
Despite the film’s appearance of being “For Us By Us,” there is nothing FUBU about the tone of the film, which is distressingly, aggressively misogynistic. First, there’s the glaring problem of Queen as a character. From the very first frame, she’s intensely unlikeable. If we’re going by the description of the character in a leaked earlier draft of the script, Queen is supposed to be “regal as f***, and sometimes that causes her to look down on peasants. She’s not an easy laugh and she’s always waiting for the other shoe to drop.” That would indicate that we’d get some nuanced characterization, right?
Instead, we get a character who is one step away from being the embodiment of the “angry Black woman.” Queen’s uppity without any likability or relatability. she constantly talks down to Slim and chides him for nearly every action he makes from an emotional, feeling place. She’s the one that spearheads the cross-country getaway, even though she has no plan.
In one scene, she gets mad at Slim for feeling bad about murdering a cop and in another scene, she’s getting mad at him for appearing not to have any feeling towards the subject. In between those, there’s yet another scene, a little after he has killed the cop, when Queen is berating him for listening to gospel to calm himself, despite the fact that it’s 1) not her car, thus not her radio to dominate, 2) not her CDs—that was part of his CD collection, and 3) doesn’t seem to register that the man just shot a cop. Allow him to listen to whatever the f*** he wants!
Also, she’s supposed to be a lawyer. Most of the ideas she had don’t make sense for a regular person, much less someone as intelligent as Queen is supposed to be. For instance, why would she defend her uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) if she knows for a fact he did kill her mother? Regardless of if it was an accident or not, he’s still liable for some jailtime under a manslaughter charge. Why did she fight for his complete exoneration? And if she’s that good of a lawyer, why didn’t she just decide to defend herself and Slim in court instead of undertaking this journey to their deaths?
The rest of the women don’t fair any better in this film. In this film, written and directed by Black women, Black women are either accessories for the men in their lives, used as “women in refrigerators,” or otherwise abused. We have Queen’s mother, who was killed by her brother no less. While she’s dead, he’s still kicking, as if the film is asking us to spare some sympathy for him. Then there’s Earl’s harem of prostitutes, who serve him in whatever way he asks.
Inexplicably, we’re supposed to find their indentured servitude to this man empowering. Indya Moore’s character Goddess (who goes by she/her pronouns in the leaked script) even says as much when she speaks to Queen, saying how her family doesn’t care how she makes her money as long as she’s happy and that part of what does make her happy is a good wig and a kiss from Earl. As we have seen from Pose, Moore (who goes by they/them) is a much better actress than Queen & Slim makes them out to be. In fact, when the film was first announced, I was the most excited to see them on the big screen. I’m annoyed that this is all Moore was asked to do.
Earl is also weirdly characterized as both some oddly progressive pimp who keeps his prostitutes free-range, as it were, as well as someone who doesn’t mind slapping women or getting verbally abusive with them. He literally says in the film, “I support a woman’s right to choose,” but then abuses one of his women when he can’t find his beloved ring. Why does Waithe want us to feel like we should like this guy?
Things get even more regressive when the “empowered” forms of Queen and Slim are embodied in the picture Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) takes right before he gets caught up in the tragic protest. The picture shows Slim, dressed like a 2006 drug dealer in a velour tracksuit, looking smug and gangster-chic. Meanwhile, Queen is propped up on the hood of the car, looking at him lovingly, her posture and angle of her head suggesting deference and submissiveness despite being taller, more emotionally brazen, and more independent than Slim was before their fateful date.
To top it all off, Queen has to wear clothes that wouldn’t work for running from the law—she’s in a trendy animal print sleeveless mini-dress and snake knee-high heeled boots. How is she keeping her underarms and legs shaven for the six days they were on the run? How did her feet not get blisters? And why did she pick the heels when Goddess, dressed to the nines up top, was wearing rain boots?! Couldn’t Goddess have traded those shoes with Queen’s?
Overall, what is Waithe trying to tell us with this now-iconic picture of Queen and Slim? What are her viewpoints on women in film and in life, if her script features women, including her leading lady, becoming props to men?
The death knell on the film’s treatment of women takes literal form when Queen is shot and killed first, fridged for the last few moments as Slim grieves over her, the camera lovingly caressing his face as he gets up with her in his arms and walks defiantly towards the cops in one last hurrah. Again, I ask, why? Why were these gender-based decisions made by someone who has gone on record as calling herself a champion of women?
I don’t doubt that Waithe’s heart is in the right place when it comes to supporting women in Hollywood and elsewhere. But when you line up some of her actions regarding this film and other projects, things start to look interesting. When it came to the casting of this film, she described Queen as someone who would have been a field slave because of her dark skin. On her other project, The Chi, her initial solution to the sexual harassment claims against Jason Mitchell was to hire a woman showrunner, as if that simple hiring choice would solve all the problems. Instead, she was putting the onus on the woman to fix the problems the man started. Cluster those instances with what we have seen in Queen & Slim, and the film’s prejudice towards women becomes even more uncomfortable.
Nothing makes sense
The least of this film’s problems is that A doesn’t lead to B. But that issue is also so glaring in its annoyance. A few moments stick out. Why did Junior’s dad (Gralen Bryant Banks) still fix Queen and Slim’s car even though he disapproved of what they were doing? Why did Junior shoot a cop in the head, and a Black one at that? If the film is trying to make us compassionate towards Queen and Slim’s plight, shooting an innocent cop isn’t going to help matters.
Why was there an “underground railroad” at all for these two people? If this were real life, not all Black people would be happy with Queen and Slim. In fact, I feel like we’d believe that they were making things worse for us since they were caught on camera killing that police officer. If this were real life, a lot of people would be online saying, “Now we have to deal with people using that video as evidence for our imagined criminality.” We wouldn’t be protecting them in a juke joint or trusting them to give us rides to the hospital.
That brings me to my final point: What is this film trying to tell us? What is its message? I feel like it wants us to analyzing the state of police brutality through these victims of the system. Slim did, indeed, shoot in self-defense. But was a Bonnie and Clyde-esque journey through the south the way to help audiences open up to the larger issues? I think all the film did was muddy its own message by trying to be cleverer and more racially performative than it had to be.
As my sister and I drove home, we said that the film might have made an even bigger point if Queen and Slim tried to take on the criminal justice system. Since she’s a lawyer, why not have her defend herself and Slim in court? Why not have her give those powerful speeches about racial statistics and bias to a judge and jury? And, in the end, why not have them win? As annoyed as I was through this film, my headache flared as I saw them both die at the end, mere steps away from a plane headed to Cuba. Could we have at least seen them live it up in Cuba, where there could have possibly met Assata Shakur (played by an actress, of course)? That would have been a little saving grace for this movie.
However, as it stands, the Blackness in Queen & Slim is limited, possibly because it was all performative to begin with. Their deaths don’t have any spark of imagination, because we’ve seen this enough in real life. What would have been imaginative is if Waithe saw her characters as living symbols, not dead martyrs for a cause that was muddied by the film’s own logic. While Kaluuya excelled, like he always does, and despite the artful direction of Matsoukas, this is not the Blackest film ever made. If anything, it’s a film that underestimates what Blackness could be or where Blackness could go.