The highly anticipated Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas and adapted by Lena Waithe from James Frey, premiered in theaters on Thanksgiving to a promising $16 million holiday debut. The film follows the unexpected love story of British actors Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith after they flee a violent scene that begins as a routine traffic stop and ends with the death of a white police officer at the hands of Kaluuya’s character.
Matsoukas’s captivating visuals coupled with Devonte Hynes’s, also known as Blood Orange, poignant score takes viewers on a languid, meditative journey through the Black South. As Queen and Slim turn from begrudging Tinder matches to ride-or-die fugitives we watch their love story unfold through the leafy palms of New Orleans and cobalt skies of Florida. Through her gaze, Matsoukas, the former Beyonce music video producer, captures a tender, nuanced beauty of Black landscape and character. However, in a film that sits at the intersection of Black love, resistance, and trauma, beauty is not enough. Under the layers of arresting visuals and poetic prose, Queen & Slim attempts (and fails) to address weighty, complex narratives of police brutality, slavery, income inequality, and more. Instead, we are met with a script that grazes these issues and lacks accountability for its depictions of Black violence and trauma.
From the beginning, the film hinges its narrative on the jarring police violence all too familiar, on screen and off, for Black audience members. I sat in the theater bracing myself against the waves of anxiety brought on by the sharp sirens and trigger-happy white cop. As the story unfolds, I slowly grew more comfortable, falling into the slow but deliberate arc of Queen and Slim’s journey and budding love. While the character development is choppy at best and leaves room for confusion, Waithe’s pithy and poetic script woos us into the dreamy haze of Black love as smooth R&B jams coo in the background. As they continue their journey, and transform into flamboyant, makeshift disguises, it becomes clear that Matsoukas’s vision is more preoccupied with aesthetic airs than coherent storytelling. This is emphasized in the scene that cuts between Queen and Slim’s sultry sexual intimacy and a protest scene that ends with the death of a Black cop we are coerced to feel sympathetic toward. Confusing at best, and offensive at worst, the scene leaves us in a precarious emotional state with no practical plot reasoning to fall back on.
Nonetheless, we continue on their journey holding our breath and settling back into the cozy corners of a friendly bar and the wide-open fields of roaming horse. We ride with Queen and Slim as they savor small moments of joy and resiliency. We fall in love with their love, we root for them, we exhale with relief each time they thwart police attempts to capture them and meet friendly faces that protect them. As Queen and Slim become national icons of Black radical liberation, I sit in my seat with eager hopes of their triumph, preferably nestled in a new life in Cuba with Assata Shakur. Despite the half-baked character development, flimsy plot, and troubling cameos of fatphobia and protest culture, the hopeless romantic in me wanted, and frankly needed, this to end well.
But, alas, as the film comes to a close and Queen and Slim are steps away from liberation, I am paralyzed again by the obstructive sound of sirens wailing behind them. We watch in terror as Queen is clipped first in the heart and Slim follows bulldozed by bullets carving out his body in holes. I helplessly watch as they fall in a bloody puddle onto each other. The shot pans slowly over their dead bodies as Moses Sumney’s velvet voice asks us, “If my heart is idle? / Am I doomed?” Slow tears streamed down my face as I sank into despair then quickly turned to betrayal. We didn’t need that ending. We didn’t need to see Queen and Slim die. We didn’t need to watch as white cops mowed down their bodies with heavy artillery. We didn’t need to bear witness to their demise in a gory display of violent theatrics.
The final shots of the film portray the legacy of Queen and Slim artistically memorialized across the nation. The message being: love extends beyond our life. But as a young Black woman grappling with my worth in America today, I was not satisfied.
I am tired of experiencing Black death as entertainment. In a world and time seemingly obsessed with documenting the ways Black bodies are violated, abused, and killed, I have no interest in recreating that trauma. Waithe and Matsoukas aestheticize Black trauma and shy away from addressing hefty questions of Black existentialism and survival. We are responsible for the art we produce and distribute, and I expected more accountability from a Black screenwriter and director. The lingering disappointment prompts me to question, who was this film for?
In a New York Times interview, Lena Waithe defends her script by stating that, “Black death is necessary to set us free” and I have to woefully disagree. For me to continue fighting for myself and my community I need to believe that our love can survive, and grow, in the here and now. I need to believe that my liberation is not contingent on my mortality. To add insult to injury, it is not until the very end of the film, when the death of Queen and Slim is announced on the news, that we learn their names. Reminding us that their story could have happened to anyone, you or me alike.
While Queen & Slim is a raw Black love story that offers hope in a visually stunning representation, ultimately it reinforces a narrative about the inevitability of Black suffering. I left the movie theater in a slow, heavy pace, exhaling deeply. It must have been obvious that I was in need of a hug because my date squeezed their arm around my side and held it there for a moment.