Waithe & Matsoukas create urban legends in “Queen & Slim”
About 13 years ago, an author named James Frey appeared on The Oprah Winfrey show. (Stay with me.) He was there for Oprah to tear him a new asshole for lying about his experience in his New York Times Bestselling auto-biography, “A Million Little Pieces“. He, liberally, embellished the details of his experience only to be exposed as a liar. The Oprah faithful were utterly disgusted as she featured his book in her Oprah’s Book Club (that was followed by millions of fans).
Needless to say, Mr. Frey angered the masses, including the Queen of media, herself. How do you redeem yourself from such a public denigration of character? (Wait for it…) Although Oprah did apologize in 2009 for making him sit on her couch and just take it for an hour in front of a hostile world, Frey’s credibility, and contribution to society (as well-intentioned as it may have been in future writings) was besmirched. We, all of us, black and white and everything in between, were pretty much done with him. He went on to continue his writing career, steering away from non-fiction and veering, head-on into young adult sci-fi. His success has been moderate, at best.
Fast forward to over a decade later. Whether it was intentional or not, or some sub-conscious attempt to make things right with the African American Queen of all media and her followers or not, Mr. Frey presented the musings of an idea to an up-and-coming, young actor-writer-director named Lena Waithe, who was gaining fame for her award winning work on her own project, The Chi.
That idea? Simple and brilliant, really: A young black couple, on their first date, get stopped by a police officer. A situation escalates to the point when the cop is fatally shot. The two of them run for it.
He gifted this idea to Lena. He said he couldn’t write it. He was right. All may have been forgiven, but nothing is forgotten in Hollywood. He knew the premise and what it could be turned into would be stillborn coming from James Frey, enemy of the people. He could have just let it die. Instead he planted a seed in Lena… from that seed came Queen & Slim. (I told you we’d get there eventually).
So, there you have the basic premise. It has been described as the black Bonnie & Clyde, but that is hardly fair. That is but a brilliant by-line to get you into the theatre. See, Bonnie & Clyde had something that Queen & Slim didn’t — intention. Queen & Slim were victims of circumstance. Although, thankfully, not a hammered home point, most likely racially-motivated circumstance.
Queen & Slim Review
Yes, of course, race does play an important role in this film. It can be considered the third lead character (the protagonist when it comes to the love story, and the antagonist when it comes to everything else). Queen & Slim has it’s shades of grey like any great movie should, but it’s hard black and white truths about the glaring and increasingly apparent racist divide in America is prevalent throughout. It’s the reason they run, it’s the reason they can’t surrender. They are a black couple who ended the life of a white cop, even though it was in what could strongly be argued as self-defence. A newly evolving definition of self-defence that many African Americans may feel that they need to have against a growing number of American cops who shoot first and ask questions (and ponder actual threats to their well-being) later, supported by a system that tends to protect the uniformed aggressors more often than punishing them.
This simple fact not only makes the jump-off point of this premise so real and horrifying, …it makes it extremely relevant. It puts every black person who has ever felt the sting of racism, every black person who considers the weight of their life while being pulled over for a routine traffic stop, directly into this movie. Although James Frey is known for fiction, this movie’s opening premise, unfortunately, is as real as it gets for a lot of black people in America currently. He read America like a book.
That’s just the jump-off. Literally, just the first five minutes of the film. The tenderness, realness, intensity, quiet moments, reflective pauses, subtle loving nuances, societal implications and repercussions, epic decisions, strengthening, and vulnerable ingredients of everything that happens after is a testament to the amazing vision of Lena’s mutli-layered screenplay and Melina’s ever-detailed, all-seeing direction that almost takes the form of a third eye that succeeds in showing you the narrative outside but also the hidden, contemplative inside of the characters on the screen, almost simultaneously.
Thanks to Tyler Perry (new King of black media), black films (or films that center around the black experience) are a dime a dozen these days, but very few are important. (Black Panther was important for a completely different reason — performance, not content). This year, the world is blessed with two amazing feature films after a drought that I would say has been the norm since films like Love Jones (that gets name checked in Queen & Slim) and Love & Basketball last graced the big screen.
Trey Edward Shults‘ Waves, and Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas‘ powerful Queen & Slim, are easily two of the most important movies around black characters in over a decade. The main difference is, save for a few elements, what happens to the family in Waves, could happen to any family in America. What happens to Queen & Slim could only happen to a black couple in America. That has an affect.
“Queen & Slim was a beautiful blend of art, history, pain and justice. It depicts a time for us to be aware and live in our truth. An open invitation into the lens of white supremacy vs. blacks on the big screen. The relatable story of many that is now a staple in black culture.”— Crystal Rowe, moviegoer.
All of this and I haven’t even touched on the love story aspect of this film. That’s because with Queen & Slim, there is so much to unpack. Waithe and Matsoukas have succeeded in presenting a film that has depth and layers. It is what happens the rare time that screenplay and direction are unified with a common goal that considers, equally, both art forms — writing and direction. Queen (a moniker as the real character’s names are, craftily, not revealed until the climax) is the one who is the strongest and most woke early on. She is the hard rock that Slim essentially follows, while maintaining his masculinity. By the end of the movie, each character has adopted some of the best traits of the other. The love naturally grows between the two amidst all the chaos, like a rose growing through cracks in concrete.
Daniel Kaluuya continues to grow into a consummate actor with each project he takes on. The undertaking by newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith was immense, but that was by design. Lena and Melina wanted to use this film to break a new young black actress. Most likely, I assume, because as black women, they knew she could handle her own with such an amazing script and a director with a strong vision, and opposite such an accomplished actor. All of which, she did. The movie also features surprising turns from musicians, Sturgill Simpson and Flea (who I guarantee you will NOT recognize).
Queen & Slim Verdict
Queen & Slim is what happens when black women have a strong message, a strong resolve, come from a place of fairness and inclusion, and believe more in working together within a community rather than individualizing or competing with each other.
Queen & Slim is Oscar fodder if I’ve ever seen it, not only for screenplay and direction, but for the lead actor’s performances who manage to keep the audience completely enthralled with the plot in what seems to be an action/love story/societal film that is merely bookended with violence of any sort.
James Frey’s idea seed found the right minds to grow into trees. I take nothing away from these amazing women. He presented them with two sentences, they turned it into one of the realest urban fairytales that we have ever seen on screen. Queen & Slim will join the vernacular that is spoken by black people about the greatest, most moving, pieces of art that our culture can call our own in the history of time. That being said, this movie is for everyone. It is too amazing of a story to be marginalized. It shows a cultural perspective through most of it, but an honest one. Shades of grey.
You leave the film feeling that Queen & Slim themselves are iconic mythical anti-heroes, who have been immortalized by this film that, in this crazy world, seems almost like non-fiction. I actually asked Toronto International Film Festival co-chair, Cameron Bailey, (who presented this special screening with a Q & A with Lena Waithe & Melina Matsoukas), after the screening if he could sell some T-shirts with the iconic portrait of Queen & Slim at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, because more than one person asked him for the promotional one that he had on. After this film drops, you will see that image everywhere — people will want to celebrate not just the film for what it is, but also, for what it will become: The Legend of Queen & Slim.
Queen & Slim opens everywhere November 27, 2019. Go see it.