This is not a traditional review, there are plot spoilers throughout. If you have not seen the film and want to go in blind, my non-spoiler rating of the movie is about a 6 out of 10. Great visuals, pretty good performances. Weak and sometimes irresponsible script.
The second time a police officer pulled his gun on me, I assumed that was where I would leave us. The first time I was shocked and surprised. I assumed what was happening could not possibly be happening. The second time, I was experienced. I assumed the worst, but I still performed as if I might survive it. I was not yet married, hadn’t even met the woman I would call my wife yet. But I was old in this stage production. I had learned how to de-escalate white people with power over me years before. The suburban high school trained me for many things that will never be listed on the curriculum.
When I did survive, when I was allowed to stand on that Pennsylvania highway so late at night, I didn’t want to keep driving. I found the first hotel that I couldn’t afford and slept there. I called the woman I was going to visit to tell her that plans had changed, I’d be there in the morning because I didn’t want to drive at night any longer. When she challenged me, I got loud. I never made it to my destination. As a writer I try to show more than I tell, but she could have used the benefit of being told why I was so scared. Why I was so angry. Unfortunately I could only show. Two years later, I would come across a short story of a Black man who is verbally abused by his White boss. Humiliated, degraded, reduced to so little, he goes home to his wife. He picks a fight. And he beats her. Reading that story scared me as much as the night I had been face-down on Interstate 70. I recognized the transference. I saw that terrifying potential.
This is what good fiction does, it connects us to a hive mind of experience. It taps our fears and aspirations, our triumphs and collapse. I am marked by what has happened to me and yet I am awakened by the experience being duplicated in another medium, written by a hand that is not my own. This is what Queen & Slim attempts to do. To take our understanding of fear, of criminalized Blackness, and the dwindling options we have when faced with eternity. It tries to ask the question of “What If?” like it were an open question while also answering with “There was no other choice.”
Queen & Slim, Multiple Facades
I should relate to Daniel Kaluuya’s “Slim” in the movie. Low key and mostly humble. He doesn’t drink or smoke either. No criminal record. He’s got more Christ in him than me. But we’re both ideal Negroes when it comes to how artificially threatening we can be portrayed. And yet he still has his life threatened. This inescapable situation, where a “clean life” still might end in unprovoked tragedy at the hands of white authority, pretends to be the spine for Queen & Slim. There is no amount of portrayed good will that can protect you. But that’s not where the focus of the movie lies, the agency of its characters inconsistent and often too catalog picture-esque. Theses are moments for the sake of the medium as opposed to the gravity of the story.
Like Black folks, no life and death moment at the hands of the police is a monolith. The fact that I’m alive to write this is evidence of that. Jodie Turner-Smith’s Queen absolves herself of her contribution to the pivotal moment by saying she saved Slim’s life — the officer would’ve killed him. While we don’t know that, I think those of us who have no illusions to the ease at which police officers kill Black people certainly believe that as an outcome. We have seen so many deaths happen in similar fashion, we have mostly lost hope on due process and the protection of innocence. It’s easy to make that leap with Queen. This is perhaps the least offensive leap into the artifice that we’re asked to indulge in. It is the catalyst for the movie’s existence and a series of events we’ve seen play out before. But it is the first step into the facade nonetheless.
The movie indulges in facsimiles of Black life that are meant to be touchstones, relatable pillars, to ground the movie. But by the film’s end, they collect into a collective mask of cobbled together experiences that are hard to fit on to a solid and fused body. Of all the characters we encounter, few have names that aren’t just character descriptions. The police officer and the Sheriff have names, we’re left with nicknames and surnames other than that. There’s Chubby and his dad, who gets no name even though he gets most of the dialogue for a five minute stretch. There’s the auto mechanic who has no name and his son, Junior. I wonder why Bokeem Woodbine’s character was named Uncle Earl instead of just Uncle, but my suspicions say that has more to do with meter of speech than humanizing him. And that may have been the intent, to display this story where the names are not important as much as the roles these characters play in a familiar story. But that feels overly generous. The result is more akin to few of these people being real people in a story; they are instead just avatars of people we think we know. I know a blue-collar man with a son named Junior and so do a lot of other Black folks. We all knew a kid from our youth that we nicknamed for his size. But we also knew his real name too, which is to say we knew him as an individual. Queen & Slim never really gives you that opportunity. Everyone is the symbol of someone you *should* know to make the story work. And seeing how the two people that hide Queen and Slim as it pivots to the third act are named Mr. & Mrs. Shepherd, I have to believe this was done intentionally.
The facade is no where more obvious than in the protest scene. We have struggled with this for some years now, what we allow or indulge in the portrayal of social activism in large, capitalistic productions. It is harsh, but I think also accurate to say that the protest scene in Queen & Slim is embarrassing. This again feels like it hits the aesthetic hallmarks. There are loud Black people in the streets. There are police officers in full riot gear. The police are blocking the people, in the middle of the street I guess? There doesn’t seem to be any landmark or courthouse or any impetus on the part of the protesters except just being out there. And while my personal editorial informs that sentiment, I think it’s an irresponsible scene to show a directionless march and protest. The scene looks more like an angry mob and that disheartens me. That the writers and director can’t find the difference between the aesthetic of the protest and the mob is deeply troubling. It affirms the viewpoint of protest detractors. It is their worst suspicions made flesh made cinema made profit. And that’s before we get to Junior executing the overly sympathetic Black officer in the middle of the street.
The protest scene is inter-cut with Queen and Slim’s first sexual encounter, parked off to the side of the cemetery where Queen’s mother is buried. By the director’s choice, there is supposed to be a parallel here, people fighting for the revolution in the streets while Queen and Slim are a revolution of Black love themselves. It doesn’t work though. The plastic portrayal of the protest and the enduring and raw spectacle of Queen and Slim’s lovemaking (though who knows how accurate that term is considering they’ve known each other for like four days at this point) isn’t symmetrical. For the protest, the stakes are particularly clear or relatable until Junior inexplicably shoots an officer in the face. For our protagonists, their revolutionary love does not make them more connected or committed to each other than the scenes before that. But they both are spectacles that are supposed to signal something in us. Even if they have been hollowed out.
The Goal and The Result
It’s a reasonable question to ask what we want from movies like this. Black people want relatable stories that reflect contemporary experiences and drama. I don’t detest the existence of slave movies or civil rights movies as much as some, but my frustration often comes from those movies being where the racism happens. It’s a bad faith argument of acknowledging American racism, but removing it from the present day as if it still doesn’t exist. Queen & Slim should be the foil for that strategy. The Hate U Give should be the solvent. But they both fail in different, spectacular ways by commodifying the mobilization of Black social justice and response to an entertainment experience. I give Queen & Slim credit over The Hate U Give as at least Queen & Slim wasn’t built for the white gaze. But it is still guilty of weaponizing our collective anxieties into a package of touchstones in place of actual storytelling. I wonder how those of us who have asked for more stories that treat our experiences as real and authentic are complicit with what is supplied to us. Film is art and art can often speak for our lives in ways that are hard to articulate. But I wonder if this vehicle, the major motion picture release, betrays the message that we often want to be told. There are exceptions to the rule, but we are often left giving the excuse “Well, it’s Hollywood, our expectations should be tempered.” And yet, we, I keep asking for these stories to be put on the largest screen possible. We may need to entertain the idea that those ideas work against each other more times than they don’t.
When I look at the failures in this script and portrayal, I often come back to the characters. The large Black man in the street that calls women every possible name but woman raising an unwoke, wayward fist for Black power solidarity. The old mechanic who doesn’t approve. Junior who doesn’t understand how any of this works and misinterprets the cause with extreme consequences. The Black cops that seem to have little allegiance to the uniform they pledged to in favor of Black life and liberation (this is perhaps one of the most offensive and inaccurate portrayals in the film). The white couple that serves on the underground railroad. The gold-mouthed Black hustler in Florida that will sell anyone out. We’ve all seen characters like this in better stories before. The folks behind Queen & Slim know that you have. And it expects you to transfer your memory onto their film, overlaying your lived experience like a clean unblemished tablecloth over their chipped and enamel stripped dining table. The movie counts on us filling in those experiences in place of it providing authentic ones itself.
Which is to say nothing for the main characters themselves. Acted better than they are written, Slim never quite has the agency that Queen does, though the film only works if we believe they are mutually in this together. He spends much of the film being dragged from one plot point to another by Queen against his better judgement. Queen on the other hand has most of her decisions informed by previously established traumas and her work experience. Her guardedness and bourgeoisie assumptions of people (she accuses Slim of only liking a restaurant because it’s all he can afford and questioning him on his criminal record) are never dealt with head on. Her defenses come down only for her fellow fugitive culminating in a sex scene. But there is no evidence of her growing or learning anything along the way. Even their last moments are immortalized by her preoccupation with awareness, which must include martyrdom. A great example of how the film operates happens after the two make it to Louisiana. While driving through the state, Slim remarks that is beautiful out there. In that moment, they drive by a chain gang, in the fields off the road. Queen, seeing this immediately following Slim’s remark answers “Is it?” But there is no larger conversation ever had about criminalization, prison labor, present day slavery or any cause. The chain gang exists for just a few seconds to give Queen a counterpunch, in the service of showing how different our protagonists still are from one another. They are used as a prop rather than a jumping off point to something meaningful.
And sadly, that’s a metaphor for the movie. In wanting to find way to compliment the film in some ways, I hold both Slim’s and Queen’s words in my head. It is beautifully shot. The landscape, the colors, the characters in front of often southern gothic backdrops. It is beautiful to look at. But is it? Does it serve the movie in meaningful ways or is it often the excuse for the movie? There is no doubt that director Melina Matsoukas shows us her skilled hand in Daniel Kaluuya in a dark Adidas sweat suit mounted upon a white horse in the open country the same way she once gave us Beyoncé with her hair falling like a willow tree from a light blue sedan. But often through the film I wondered what it was in service of. Would it ever compliment a solid, foundational story that touched real emotional places for us? Or would it just look pretty, despite itself.