Queen and Slim: A Film About Love and What it Means to be Black in America
With the recent media coverage that the horrific shooting of Daunte Wright and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have been receiving, efforts to achieve racial equality and police reform have been gaining a lot of attention and support this year. The Black Lives Matter movement has a voice in the media, and people are listening. Like many fellow Black people, I want to use this moment of visibility to help non-Black people understand their privilege and understand why it’s so important to not let that privilege go to waste, especially in a time where reform is so desperately needed—or rather, when the constant need for reform has come to the forefront of the public’s imagination, opening up a window that we will hopefully seize to address our nation’s blatant race inequality. As a filmmaker, one of the best ways I know how to express this call-to-action is through film; Melina Matsoukas’ feature film debut, Queen & Slim, is a prime example of that possibility. Centered around a Black man and woman who become fugitives of the law after accidentally killing a police officer in self-defense, Queen & Slim perfectly encompasses why so many are fighting for police reform. Through Lena Waithe’s poetic script writing and Melina Matsoukas’ vibrant and poignant creative direction, Queen & Slim offers many subtle representations of the Black experience that get to the core of what today’s conversations are about.
The film begins with a casual first date between the protagonists, whom we know as Queen and Slim. While driving home on the empty streets of Cleveland, the pair are pulled over by a cop. What starts as a questioning for reckless driving (a slight swerve when Slim was reaching for his phone) turns into an abuse of power. After an unnecessary escalation of events, Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) is on the ground with a gun pointed at him. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) gets out of the car and is then shot by the cop. One panicked decision leads to another and Slim shoots the cop in self-defense. Queen and Slim decide to flee the scene and head South. They spend the remainder of the film on the run, contemplating life, love, and what it means to be Black in America. While stuck in a car with their thoughts is where some of Queen and Slim’s most powerful lines, (aka screenwriter Lena Waithe’s poetic writing), surface. With its effortless precision and almost lyrical flow, the script’s authenticity and relevance should not go unnoticed, especially now. Here are four quotes from the film that give insight into the Black experience in America:
1. Slim: Are you a good lawyer?
Queen: I’m an excellent lawyer.
Slim: Why do Black people always feel the need to be excellent? Why can’t we just be ourselves?
These words are exchanged in a brief moment of calm while Queen and Slim are on the run. They are eating fast food in a parking lot, and Slim makes an attempt to get to know more about Queen, who is still somewhat of a stranger to him. When I heard these lines for the first time, I was moved by the subtle depth and accuracy it conveyed. The idea that we need to be excellent or go the extra mile is something I think most Black people can relate to. As a Black woman, I have always felt one step behind in many aspects of my life. When I find myself in a room where I am one of a few, if not the only, person of color (which has happened way too often in my educational endeavors), I can’t help but feel that I had to face more unjust obstacles just to be afforded the same opportunities enjoyed by many of my white peers. This is essentially the base to understanding privilege. In many cases, white privilege presents itself as a lack of certain obstacles and barriers—obstacles and barriers that can easily be overlooked or even invalidated when you are not directly impacted by them. An example of this can be seen in job opportunities. Objectively, there are universal pressures and expectations that all people experience during a job interview. No matter your race, gender, or religion, you are expected to dress professionally and come prepared with intelligent responses. With that being said, as a Black person there are added pressures and fears we have to prepare for that white people do not share. Oftentimes, we have to ask ourselves, can what I’m wearing give the interviewer any reason to perceive me as “ghetto” or “thug-like?” Does the way I speak sound educated enough? Will my experience and professionalism be enough to make the employer see past the color of my skin and the stereotypes that plague the foundation of this country? While our white counterparts also face certain obstacles in the same sorts of situations, we are faced with the looming hurdle of tirelessly trying to not give others any reason to let society’s prejudices shape their perception of us.
In order to gain the level of respect others are given, we have to be excellent. In order to succeed in life, we have to be excellent. The second we are not, the second we let our guard down, is the second there is a target on our back. A target that tells people we are less than, undeserving, or a threat.
2. Queen: “It should be a sin to call a Black woman crazy.”
In the blink of an eye, Queen goes from being a defense attorney to a fugitive who has been shot. For most, that is a valid excuse behind any display of emotion, but for a Black woman like Queen, it is still not enough to stop her from being dismissed as crazy by Slim. Many people have heard the stereotype of the angry Black woman and the connotation it carries, but they don’t fully understand why it exists, or why it is so harmful. Black women are at the receiving end of centuries of racism and sexism, centuries of their bodies being objectified and exoticized, centuries of their mental and physical pain being ignored. So yes, we are angry.
Because of racial bias in the health care system, Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. There is a very prevalent history of Black women’s pain being dismissed by doctors. A more well-known example of this can be seen in Serena Williams’ pregnancy. After giving birth via c-section, Serena Williams felt short of breath. With a history of pulmonary embolisms, Williams knew what was wrong and informed a nurse that she needed a computed tomography (CT) scan with contrast and IV heparin right away. The nurse dismissed her claims and thought her pain medicine was making her confused. The doctor then performed an ultrasound on her legs (which obviously showed nothing) even though Williams said she needed a CT. They finally performed the CT and found blood clots in her lungs. Williams had severe complications while in the hospital that could have been preventable if her claims and concerns were taken seriously, rather than doubted.
Our anger is a plea for change. A plea to be heard and for the deadly discrimination we face in order to be recognized. Once our anger ceases to be dismissed by words like ‘aggressive’ and ‘crazy,’ it can be used to enact the change that is needed. Queen’s comment is a reminder for Black women to not accept the dismissive remarks that get thrown around without deep consideration or understanding of their repercussions. When Slim calls her crazy for her unusual composure in a stressful situation, she is quick to call him out, reminding him and everyone watching that her emotions are valid, and failing to recognize that continues the history of disregarding the pain and struggles of Black women.
3. Uncle Earl: “The police, they’re like slave catchers. They can smell a runaway for miles.”
This line is uttered by a particularly entertaining character that is introduced when Queen and Slim make it to New Orleans. With his brutal honesty and screw-all attitude, Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) is a startlingly different character from his stern and level-headed niece Queen who goes to him for refuge. In his hilariously blunt rants, Uncle Earl touches on some unexpectedly insightful topics, this quote being one of them. Although many may not have realized at the time of the film’s release, this quote is more rooted in reality than most would like to believe. When tracing back the history of policing in America, it is apparent that the origins of modern policing, specifically in the South, come from slave patrols. After the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery, slave patrols evolved into modern Southern police departments whose primary effort was to reinforce Jim Crow segregation laws, which were enforced until 1965. Whether people want to believe that cops target Black people or not, the ties between modern policing and slave patrolling are undeniable.
One of the main goals of the Black Lives Matter movement is police reform, and a key part of understanding why this is so important is understanding the history of policing and looking at the disproportionate killing of Black Americans by the police. For many Americans, it is not easy to see the villainization of a system that is known to serve and protect their rights. I ask these Americans to have some perspective and look at experiences other than their own. My experience is growing up with the phrase “driving while Black” ingrained in my brain from a young age. My experience is feeling fearful every time a cop has followed me while driving. My experience is hearing stories of countless innocent Black people being killed, and the perpetrators never paying for their crimes, and wondering if I or someone in my family will be next. Together, mine and the contrasting experiences of Black and white Americans reflect a system that is corrupt. A system that targets one demographic and not the other. A system that needs reform.
4. Queen: “Can I be your legacy?”
Slim: “You already are.”
I’d consider these words the most powerful in the entire film. They are the last words spoken by Queen and Slim before they are brutally gunned down by the police. These words are connected to an earlier point in the film where Slim expresses that he does not need to change the world, as long as his legacy is carried through the ones he loves. Although in the context of the film these words embody Queen and Slim’s love for each other and resonate with most by reminding us that our impact is made through the lives we touch, they also represent something bigger when related to the overarching theme of the film. In today’s social and political climate, those words represent how so many Black lives have been taken by police brutality and how the Black Lives Matter movement is their legacy. We are fighting so that their deaths will not be in vain, and we are fighting to make sure this country never stops saying their names. To make sure that Daunte Wright, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Michelle Cusseaux, Freddie Gray, Janisha Fonville, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Gabriella Nevarez, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, and so many others are not forgotten. When you join the movement, you are not only fighting for a better future for Black people, but you are also honoring the lives of thousands who will never get to see this better future.
Immediately after Slim responds to Queen with “You already are,” Queen is shot in the chest.
After that horrific moment, the screen is filled with a deafening silence. A silence that speaks louder than all the words heard before it. Slim picks up Queen’s body and begins to walk towards the police. The look on his face shows more than pain. It’s the face of a man whose entire life has already been taken from him. The face of a man who knows he is about to become another statistic, another name added to the list. The silence in this scene is beyond harrowing. It carries the weight of every Black woman and man silenced by an officer’s bullet. The weight of this silence should be more than enough to spark immediate change, but unfortunately it has not. We need to continue the fight, whether it’s trending in the news or not.