Written by Lena Waithe and James Frey
Directed by Melina Matsoukas
Released November 14, 2019
I saw this movie on Friday and it’s taken me a couple of days to let it sink in. It is an emotional movie. I don’t really know how else to describe it. But first:
Seriously, read no further until after you’ve seen this movie, if you’re planning to.
So, Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya (whom I just discovered are both British, so I guess Samuel L. Jackson will be skipping this film) star as Angela aka “Queen” and Ernest aka “Slim,” a couple of young Black professionals who meet one night on a blind date, which doesn’t go too well, as they don’t seem to have much in common.
I should note for the record that, I could be wrong, but I don’t recall the characters actually being referred to as Queen or Slim in this film, which seems really odd, but that’s how I’ll refer to them in this review, just to be easy.
Anyway, on the drive home after the date, Slim is pulled over by a White police officer, ostensibly for failing to turn on his turn-signal, who unnecessarily forces Slim out of the car. Queen, a Criminal Defense lawyer, gets out to record the incident on her phone, and the police officer shoots at her, which leads to Slim scuffling with the cop and ending up shooting him dead.
Right there I was struck with just how plausible this scene was, and how it played out. Racial profiling by police happens, far too often, to Black men. And cops can be overly aggressive, especially to the victim or someone around them dares to try to assert their rights, including their right to record the action. I’ve seen far too many real-life examples of situations just like this. The only thing that makes this scenario in the film unique, is that it ends with the police officer dead. What’s more likely is that it would have been either Slim or Queen who ended up dead. And, even with the video of the incident being released to the public, the cop most likely would never be charged with a crime, and even if was he would be found not guilty by a jury. The phrase THIS IS AMERICA first popped into my head while watching this scene, and it would repeat itself several times as I watched the rest of the film.
And this is why Queen and Slim’s immediate reaction to the death of the cop also rang so true. They both quickly realize that their lives, as they knew it, or over. One way or another, they would not survive this incident. They knew that death or jail was thier only future at this point. Even with the recording which could be used to argue self-defense in a court, they knew it was hopeless. THIS IS AMERICA. They could not count on The System to do the right thing by them, because that’s just not the reality for most Black folks, and Queen especially knows this as someone who works within that system. So they go on the run, with the eventual goal of attempting to sneak out of the country and head to Cuba for safety.
And that’s the majority of the rest of the film, showing us the two young people trekking through the South, attempting to avoid the police, on their way to Florida, where they plan to make the trip overseas. During this time, news of the incident goes out, and they become national outlaws to law enforcement, but also folk heroes to a large part of the Black community, including several people they encounter on their trip who go out of their way to help them hide from the law.
This also is a very real scenario. First, let’s be clear, this is not a “Black thing.” Turning criminals into heroes is an American pastime, dating back to the Wild West, when men like Jesse James and Billy The Kid become dime-novel heroes and eventual cultural icons, through to 1930’s gangsters like John Dillinger. Countless hit films, TV shows, and other entertainment, have been made of lawless vigilantes, and often times even law enforcement officers themselves, who go off on streaks of vengeance to take the law into their own hands, from Charles Bronson in Death Wish, to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, Marvel Comics’ The Punisher (who has become a heroic symbol to some real-life police officers) and many others, America loves her criminals. As long as they’re White.
Notice how there is no “marching song” for Nat Turner like there is for John Brown?.
My point is bolstered by how often Queen and Slim are compared in promotional material for this film to real-life outlaws Bonnie and Clyde. A pair of violent robbers and killers who have nevertheless have been romanticized by multiple Hollywood productions on the big and small screen. Their very names becoming synonymous with the idea of a devoted male and female couple, of true soulmates. Think that would have ever happened if they were Black?
So, yeah, it’s easy to criticize (as I’ll admit I have) Black folks who cheered for O.J. Simpson’s acquittal of double-murder charges, even as they privately acknowledged his guilt, or looked at ex-cop turned cop-killer Charles Dorner as a martyr back in 2013, but White Americans have been worshipping killers for decades now, so who are they to talk?
Thus, in this era of police shootings, it’s very easy to imagine a real-life Queen & Slim being elevated to hero status by a large section of the Black community. Nevertheless, the film doesn’t shy away from showing the danger of this type of ultimately dangerous misplaced hero-worship, as one young Black man, after meeting Queen and Slim, recklessly shoots and kills a police officer, who also happens to be Black, and then is shot dead himself.
So now two innocent Black people are dead, in reaction to Queen and Slim’s behavior. Are they to blame for that? Are the people who turned them into heroes responsible for that? The movie leaves that uncomfortable question open to the audience.
Christopher Dorner’s first two murder victims: Monica Quan & Keith Lawrence, R.I.P.
I will say that the weakest plot point of this film is the love story aspect of it. For me it felt sort of just tacked on. I mean, I think I know what the filmmakers were going for. It was a symbol of the shared experience that Black Americans tend to feel, even from different backgrounds. These two were thrown together, and at first don’t seem able to relate to each other. But this shared experience of racism and violence throws them together, and they instantly team up, as if it’s them against the world because for all intents and purposes it is. They know what they’re up against, and it’s that impending doom which finally bonds them.
I guess there’s some validity in that, but I think I would have written this as an already established committed couple. Maybe open with instead of it being a blind date, being them out celebrating their anniversary, and then having Slim propose to Queen, who accepts. And it’s on their way from that that they get pulled over by the cop and this tragedy commences. I think something like that would have made their predicimate feel even more tragic.
Nevertheless, I will credit Turner-Smith and Kaluuya for making this work. They have undeniable chemistry and make their rushed love affair feel as believable as it can.
And it’s because of their chemistry and acting talents that I found myself internally rooting for them throughout the film. With all of the ways that this film invoked the memories of real-life victims of police (and other racist) violence, I find myself hoping that this film would at least would give us a happy ending. The happy ending that Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Laquan Mcdonald, Sandra Bland, Aiyana Jones, Rekia Boyd, and far, far too many others to name did not get.
But, no, THIS IS AMERICA. So, of course, there was only one way for this story to end. In a hail of bullets, at the hands of police, just minutes before making it to freedom.
I was upset and somewhat depressed as I left the theater. I almost felt betrayed. Like, dammint, even in the fantasy world of Hollywood we can’t win?!?
But with some reflection I’m able to accept the ending as perhaps the only logical choice this movie can make. And I can understand why Waithe chose to write it this way. Still, it will probably be quite some time before I can bring myself to watch this film again. But I can recommend it to you.
Queen & Slim is in theaters now.