‘Queen & Slim’ Is a Much-Needed Celebration of Black Love, Rage, and Liberation
Melina Matsoukas and Lena Waithe’s new film reminds us that even in the face of brutality, there’s always beauty in our resistance
Warning: This piece contains spoilers from the film Queen & Slim.
If we know anything about Queen & Slim, it’s that it’s got to be bold, beautiful, and unapologetic AF. Looking at the duo behind the anticipated film, how could it not? Director Melina Matsoukas has helmed some of this decade’s most transformative videos, including Beyoncé’s “Formation.” Meanwhile, screenwriter Lena Waithe is the mastermind behind the Emmy-winning Master of None “Thanksgiving” episode, The Chi, and BET’s Boomerang reboot.
With these two behind the wheel, the film is destined to be a “love letter to Blackness.”
Even knowing all that, in the second shot of the film, there’s this tiny blink-and-miss-it moment where that sentiment truly hit me. The camera holds still on a Black waitress, with shellacked curly-Q sculpted edges and bamboo earrings, picking up plates of hot food to deliver to her tables in a tiny Black-owned Cleveland diner. The moment I saw her, I grinned, and thought, “Oh yeah, this is for us.”
Thanks to Matsoukas’ “unflinching eye,” Queen & Slim captures the complexity and nuance of our culture in a way that feels warm, endearing, and familiar. Like we’re in Granny’s kitchen trying to find a snack in her biscuit tin that’s filled with just rubber bands and bobby pins. Even in the grittiness of it all — luscious dark-skinned bodies grinding against each other on the dance floor of a smoky blues club, our people lined up in the streets holding protest signs and sparring with America’s finest, and gold grills gleaming in the haziness of the Florida Keys — Matsoukas and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe also remind us that art has always existed outside the white middle-class gaze.
They are committed to having every frame make us feel seen, heard, and affirmed in our own image.
Grounded in its rich and layered aesthetic, the film’s profound message of the power of Black love, protest, and our fight for freedom is also visually realized. The script, based on a short story by Waithe and James Frey, the controversial author of A Million Little Pieces, has its finger on the pulse of Black America, tapping into our very fear of being caught in the literal crosshairs of police violence.
The story opens with two strangers, Queen and Slim, played by newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith and Academy Awards Best Actor nominee Daniel Kaluuya, on an extremely awkward first date after matching on Tinder. On the drive home, a White police officer pulls them over for failure to execute a turn signal. Not surprisingly, in a matter of minutes the encounter escalates to violence. Only this time, a Black man is not shot and killed—a trigger-happy police officer is shot in self-defense. Fearing prison or worse, Queen and Slim become each other’s ride-or-die as they go on the run.
There are no joyrides or armed robberies, just two Black folks “facing down systemic abuse and accepting the price of freedom.”
While a character in the film refers to the duo as the “Black Bonnie and Clyde,” I argue, as does Sheri Linden from the Hollywood Reporter, that they’re more Thelma and Louise. Slim may have killed a cop, and they both may be fugitives, but as he reminds us, he’s “no criminal.” There are no joyrides or armed robberies, just two Black folks “facing down systemic abuse and accepting the price of freedom.”
Yet somehow on their dangerous and terrifying journey, which leads them from Cleveland to New Orleans to the Sunshine State (and, hopefully, to Cuba), these polar opposites fall in love. Amid all the chaos and the real threat of the outside world closing in, Queen and Slim carve out tiny spaces to connect and unveil their desires, and true selves, to one another. Queen, a defense lawyer who orders a romaine salad at a diner, is more than just the uppity ice-queen trope she starts off as in the film. She is a young woman haunted by her past and the pressure to be exceptional. Meanwhile, Slim is more complex than his blue-collar trappings and the basicness of his “TRUSTGOD” license plate. As Chris Lee of Vulture noted, he is “extraordinary in his ordinariness” and can teach us all lessons about love, respect, and responsibility through his unassuming wisdom.
In what could be the duo’s last days, they refuse to “wear the mask” and allow themselves to be vulnerable by letting love in. It’s the only way they will survive — if they survive.
Interestingly, the Black love in Queen & Slim isn’t all romantic. This film illuminates the deep connections the couple have with their families, acquaintances, and strangers they meet (and those they never will) while traveling through this modern-day Underground Railroad. In an interview with the California Sunday Magazine, Waithe told Danyel Smith that this aspect was important to convey given how too often Hollywood’s mostly White gatekeepers try and succeed in erasing us from the screen.
“We lose a lot of our humanity. It’s important for us to see us love each other in all the ways we love each other,” Waithe says.
And we love hard in this film. Damn the consequences.
First up is Uncle Earl, a pimp and veteran—brilliantly played by Bokeem Woodbine—who risks his own neck to protect his niece after they show up on his porch. The sex workers who live with Earl instantly close ranks to adopt the couple as their own. In one scene, Queen is nestled between the legs of Goddess, played by Pose’s Indya Moore, who unravels Queen’s braids one by one to help her become unrecognizable to the outside world. It’s the quintessential intimate act of sistahood.
Then there’s the mechanic’s teenage son who takes to the streets in the couple’s honor after he crosses paths with them. There’s also the Black bartender who recognizes Queen and Slim but stresses to Slim that they’re “safe” in her establishment. My personal favorite: a Black police officer who chooses to bleed Black instead of blue when he lets the two escape unbeknownst to his racist White colleague.
It’s quite the cinematic embodiment of Issa Rae’s “I’m rooting for everybody Black.” Given what’s at stake for these newly minted folk heroes, we should expect nothing less.
“Do. You. Want to be. The state’s property?” Queen asks Slim point blank. After the reality of it all sinks in, he replies, “No.”
Every character, while not privy to that particular conversation, understands the beloved couple’s slim and grim options. So they become invested in Queen and Slim. Not just out of a sense of racial obligation and devotion, but out of a deep desire to seek freedom and justice as a collective people. To watch them win is somehow a win for all of us, especially folks who feel hopeless and want to do more than just say folks’ names after the fact. This is their moment, along with Queen and Slim, to resist against the Man and make it count.
As Matsoukas told the Los Angeles Times, this is all intentional: “We created this film to honor brown and Black bodies that were lost by the hands of law enforcement. But we also didn’t want to show Black people just as victims. We wanted to see people who are fighting back and represent us in a different way.”
Until the very end, the community fights for them with bated breath. Even more satisfying, Queen and Slim never give up, with their very demise still being on their own terms.
Outside of Barry Jenkins and Ryan Coogler, most male filmmakers don’t have the range to capture this type of nuanced emotion on- and off-screen. Often, it takes a Black woman’s radical peripheral vision to not only grasp but also reimagine this reality.
As Queen and Slim teach us, right now in this moment, we are each other’s dreams, regardless of whether they are achieved or deferred.
Now, Queen & Slim isn’t perfect. Given its quest to be so woke, the ride takes a few detours with subplots that don’t always feel cohesive and necessary and with dialogue that at times feels heavy-handed and unrealistic. But perfection isn’t needed to capture the film’s heart. Through the pen and the lens, Waithe and Matsoukas are boldly shifting the narrative and using the film’s characters to ask hard questions about who we are, how tragedy shapes us, and how that informs the legacy we leave behind. When the film’s credits hit the screen, the answers become clearer.
As Black folks, we’re more than just figures in the out-of-focus dashcam videos of violence that go viral online. We’re more than just some group of people this triflin’ president and his hateful cult of followers want to send back to where we came from. And we’re more than our ancestors’ wildest dreams. Because as Queen and Slim teach us, right now in this moment, we’re each other’s dreams, regardless of whether they are achieved or deferred.
Queen & Slim hits theaters nationwide on November 27.