Queen & Slim, released on Thanksgiving Day, has been heavily marketed as a movie for Black people.
It’s what people will sometimes refer to as a “unapologetically Black” production; it’s written by a queer Black woman (Lena Waite), directed by a Black woman (Melina Matsoukas), stars two dark-skinned Black people (Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith), and puts Black culture on display.
The premise of the film is one that resonates with Black people. Two people go on an unremarkable Tinder date, and one of them ends up shooting and killing a trigger-happy cop in self-defense. They go on the lam, determined to outrun the life imprisonment and/or brutal death that is sure to come if they get apprehended by the police.
Considering the fact that Black people have spent the last few years extensively discussing police brutality and demanding that we stopped being shot and killed with impunity, a film that centers on Black people trying to escape state-sanctioned violence by any means necessary — finding love and community and hope along the way — could be extremely attractive to Black audiences.
The thing is, this movie doesn’t seem to have been made for Black people. Or, maybe I should say that it’s not for certain types of Black people. For the past few days, I’ve been trying to figure out who Queen & Slim is actually for.
It’s not for fat Black people. How could it be when two fat characters are used as comedic relief, encouraging the audience to laugh at their expense? When one of the characters — a fat Black boy — is literally just referred to as “Chubby” in the credits, when he’s only on screen to endure jokes about his weight? How could it be when the boy’s father — who is also fat in the movie — is injured by one of our protagonists, and his pain is literally supposed to be funny to us?
These characters only existed to be laughed at. They aren’t offered any nuance, or sympathy, or anything that would’ve made them human. Fatness and fat Black people are a joke in the movie in the same way that it’s a joke in the real world.
It’s not for Black women. You’d think that it was; Queen is a passionate, out-spoken defense attorney who exudes determination and strength. She could be seen as the more dominant of the two at the beginning of the film. On paper, Queen seems to be a strong protagonist. But the movie seems obsessed with “humbling” her; over time, she becomes softer, quieter, and follows Slim’s lead a lot more. Of course a character is supposed to change over the course of a film, but this movie shrinks Queen in favor of letting Slim grow. The loud, outspoken woman we met at the beginning of the film is traded for a demure woman, and her diminishment is seen as progress for her.
Queen experiences the most violence against her body; getting shot in the leg, dislocating her shoulder, and being the first to die from police gunfire. The only bit of backstory we get for her features domestic violence against her mother, which ultimately results in her mother’s death (Queen’s then forced to seek help from the man who killed her mother, who happens to be Queen’s verbally abusive uncle.)
Queen’s even disrespected outside of the script; the casting call for Queen states that “if she were a slave she would’ve worked in the fields.” Of all of the ways to describe a dark-skinned woman, they chose to flippantly assign her a role full of unimaginable trauma and horror.
Most of all, Queen & Slim is not for Black people who are involved in Black liberation movements. This is a movie where a pivotal protest sequence is intercut with a sex scene. While Queen & Slim make love in a car, a Black teenage boy named Junior confronts a Black police officer during a protest. Junior — who had told Queen & Slim that he admires them, and says that he wants to be remembered in the same way they’ll be remembered — shoots and kills the officer.
It is the most jarring, mindbogglingly terrible sequence of events. It’s a sequence that is completely devoid of any understanding of Black children who are forced to grow up in a world teeming with state-sanctioned violence. There are no layers to Junior, as the movie doesn’t seem interested in examining what Black teenagers like him would be feeling. He’s simply an impulsive, fame-hungry Black teen who commits an act of violence against someone who looks like him.
The movie demonstrates a lack of understanding of Black liberation movements in general. Aside from Junior and the protest scene, the only character that really has anything to say about police brutality is the fat man they accidentally hit with their car. He praises them for what they did, gleefully referring to them as “cop killers,” because he sees what they did as a way to take out corrupt, abusive police. This could’ve led into an interrogation of how police brutality has affected Black communities, but the movie was more interested in using this moment as an attempt at comedy. Queen & Slim ultimately makes the assertion that those who protest police brutality are opportunistic, blindly hate police officers, and see violent retribution as the only solution.
The police officers in this movie receive better treatment than the characters oppose police brutality. The movie goes out of its way to present us with a Black cop who helps Queen & Slim after being condescended to by his partner. The movie uses their interaction to try to remind us that not all cops are bad. And while that technically may be a true argument, it’s also an argument that’s used to shout down criticism of law enforcement. More often than not, #NotAllCops is used as a tool to silence those who want to speak on police brutality and corruption. Any salient critique is shut down once that sentiment is deployed.
There’s a hint of #BlueLivesMatter in Queen & Slim, as well. Besides presenting the audience the murder of a Black officer at the hands of a Black child, the movie also subtly asks us to remember that the officer who Slim killed was a person with a family, too.
In what appears to be an earlier version of the screenplay, there’s the officer’s children are described as twin boys who are “completely unaware of how privileged their lives will be simply because they were born white and male.”
There’s an innocence assigned to these children that was not assigned to Junior; these white children get to be children, while Junior has to be some twisted version of a martyr. This could’ve been an intentional reflection on white childhood vs. Black childhood, but since there’s no consideration given to Junior’s character, it just ends up adding insult to injury.
When I look back at all the pieces of this movie, I can’t help but feel confused as to who the target audience was. Who does this movie serve? What is it for? Who did they think they were talking to?
Maybe Lena Waithe was only talking to Black people who are similar to her. Maybe she was talking to Black who think they’re somehow exceptional to or different from other Black people because they can immerse themselves in non-Black culture. She seems to think that of herself, considering that she was quoted as saying that her voice is “so weird and confuses people sometimes, because I study Spike Lee, I study Sorkin, and I study Spike Jonze, and that makes me a little different than a person who only has black influences.”
Never mind the fact that it’s not exceptional to study non-Black filmmakers — that every Black filmmaker is pretty much forced to have non-Black influences because the work of Black filmmakers is rarely taught. Never mind the fact that liking things that don’t directly appeal to Black audiences is not at all uncommon for Black people. Black people who think like Lena Waithe think themselves singular because their interests are varied. So, maybe that’s who she was talking to.
Or, maybe Waithe wasn’t talking to Black people at all. Maybe she was just talking to racist white people. After all, her script does fuel the belief that our children are violent and hate police officers. Just look at Junior’s brief arc in the movie, an arc that Waithe herself claims was inspired by the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by a police officer while playing with a toy gun in a park. During an interview on “The Read” podcast, Waithe stated that Junior’s character was born out of the idea that many Black children could see all police officers as murderers. At some point, she became interested in the idea of Tamir having had a real gun on the day he was killed. In her mind, this was “swapping the narrative.”
But what narrative does she think she’s swapping? How is imagining Tamir with a real gun doing anything other than perpetuating the same violent rhetoric that caused Tamir’s death? Waithe implies that someone like Tamir — a Black child — could something as violent as shoot a police officer in the face. You know how else thinks this way? Racist white people — and racist white cops. The ones who pull up on the scene and shoot and kill someone within seconds of their arrival. You didn’t have to imagine Tamir as a killer — the cop who killed him had already done that before he ever laid eyes on Tamir. And the racists who defend Tamir’s murder continue to imagine Tamir as a killer years after the fact. It’s not hard to see how a racist could see this movie and walk out feeling at least a little bit validated in some of their beliefs.
Or, maybe Queen & Slim isn’t for either of those crowds. Maybe Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas didn’t know who they were talking to. Maybe they simply didn’t have the range to hold the conversation they thought they were holding. Maybe they should’ve reached out to someone who did.
I wish I could figure it out. Because, as far as I can tell, no matter how unapologetically Black it looks, Queen & Slim is not for Black people.