Film & Television

‘Queen & Slim,’ Melina Matsoukas’s Stunning
Feature Debut

America’s inherent racism is always present in Queen and Slim’s journey, and there’s an acknowledged irony in the fact that in their attempt to escape it, they travel south, not north. In Kentucky, Queen looks out the window of their car and sees a black chain gang, supervised by white officers on horseback, working in the fields. For a horrified moment, she’s been sent back to the antebellum era. Later, she and Slim hide from the police under floorboards in the bedroom of a supportive friend. The visual is at once evocative of the hold of a slave ship and of the Underground Railroad. There are other allusions as well. Cleveland, where the story starts, was the final stop on the Underground Railroad before fugitive slaves escaped into freedom in Canada. And when Slim and Queen stop at “The Underground,” a juke joint one night, they find temporary sanctuary and protection. “It represents for them a safe haven,” Matsoukas explained in an interview with The New York Times, “They are protected here in the womb of their community.”

Matsoukas, whose previous work includes television as well as music videos, met the screenwriter Lena Waithe when they worked together on the Netflix series Master of None. (Waithe went on to win an Emmy for the show’s “Thanksgiving” episode.) Waithe told Matsoukas about a script she was working on with James Frey. Matsoukas was immediately interested.

“Lena is my work soul sister,” Matsoukas told the L.A. Times. “We have a beautiful relationship that is full of trust on both sides. After I read her script, I knew instantly that I wanted it to be my first feature. It was provocative and powerful, and said something important and said it loudly. But it’s also very entertaining and tells a beautiful love story. The fact that it has a broad reach makes it more powerful.”

Powerful is also the right word for Matsoukas’s marvelous cast. Kaluuya, whose work in Get Out earned an Oscar nomination, is every bit as good here as he was in that unforgettable story. Turner-Smith, in her first leading role, is captivating. Both actors effectively evolve their characters over the course of the movie —  Turner-Smith from jaded and defiant to vulnerable and trusting, Kaluuya from mild-mannered and compliant to determined and heroic. “I’ll be brave enough for both of us,” he assures her when her hope falters. They are utterly believable as adversaries, then lovers, and eventually, folk heroes.

There is a mythic quality to Queen & Slim. Interestingly, we don’t learn the protagonists’ names until the very end of the film. In that way, they are meant to be a sort of everywoman and everyman. They are in an extraordinary situation, but they started out as average people. This is underscored early on when Slim asks Queen if she’s a good lawyer.

“I’m an excellent lawyer,” she rebukes him.

He counters, “Why do black people always have to be excellent? Why can’t we just be normal?”

Of course, after what happens to them that night in Cleveland, they can never be normal again.

Matsoukas explains, “The reason I became a filmmaker was to disrupt, create change and create a conversation. 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. This movie aligned with my values as an artist who wants to make protest art. This is my form of activism and fight. I want to be part of that important conversation and hopefully bring change to this world, which is so duly needed. Our goal is to help create empathy for communities of color and the struggles that we go through, and that audiences feel the need to take action and change a lot of the injustices that happen in our world.”

Queen & Slim certainly encourages conversation. It’s also a tremendous tribute to the human spirit. And although it dramatizes themes of desperation and injustice, it is hauntingly beautiful. Its heroes — and heartbreak — will stay with you long after the credits roll. 

I, for one, look forward to seeing what Matsoukas does next.

 

 

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