Queen and Slim:
Messy, Unfocused, Sublime
Queen and Slim is a 2019 film directed by Malina Matsoukas and written by Lena Waithe and James Frey. The movie features Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as the titular characters and Chloe Sevigny and Bokeem Woodbine in supporting roles. “Queen” currently sits at an 83% Critics score and a 93% audience approval score on Rotten Tomatoes. The conversation about a movie so universally highly regarded would not seem to have room for controversy but yet… In the midst of the acclaim, two critiques have surfaced (one less of a critique than a sense of bemused eye-rolling at some histrionic casting details for Queen). As the internet is eternally immersed in amusing itself I will not address much ink to the former but the latter deserves discussion.
In the weeks after Queen and Slim debuted a sophisticated critique has taken shape: inasmuch as Queen and Slim focuses on the stylization and depiction of black trauma it has failed at art, at this point in history (so the argument goes) black entertainment should go beyond that. This critique focuses with laser-like intensity on the perceived emotional manipulation and laziness of packaging and repackaging black devastation for critical adulation and lucre (a more pointed commentary would note the population that both normally come from and what this says about the artistic endeavors true audience) but that is not the purpose of this essay.
I find it particularly frustrating that to certain types of people, the only true authentically black stories are about rage, nihilism, and death. Usually, that sentiment is about indicting the sentiments of comfortable white liberals but frankly, stupidity knows no parties. Many Conservatives often believe that black entertainment is primarily concerned with “indicting systems of oppression” and re-litigating historical traumas (their reason for rejecting it out of hand) and the end result of this mental mush-mindedness is the mind-numbing consensus that black art is primarily about confronting some malignant aspect of whiteness, a concession of and to the integrality of whiteness to the black experience that is never warranted.
What then are to make of Queen and Slim? Let’s take a step back and see if we can find thoughts that fall somewhere beyond derision, disgust, and adulation (the only reactions the internet finds capable of mustering).
Queen and Slim works best as a fairy story. A kind of pedagogical morality play about betrayal, solidarity, race, and meaning played out on snowy streets, vast bayous and sunny vistas. “Queen” is more Ta- Nehisi Coates than Harriet Beecher Stowe, more Richard Martin than James Baldwin. It is a film drenched in nihilistic melancholy obscured by a heart-rending romance and the crackling dynamism Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith bring to the screen together. Beneath the beauty, there is a hard-edge that is almost cruelly cynical in its forthrightness.
Beautifully shot, wrenchingly and lyrically written, sumptuously delivered and yet “Queen” is utterly revolting in its stark depiction of the generational traumas that manifest themselves in societies built on white supremacy.
Despite a hoary inciting incident, the movie still feels inchoate. It is not clear exactly what is being objected to, but even with a lack of an overarching story, several smaller critiques and sub-narratives creep in:
- How justice delayed and denied can incite simmering unrest into revolutionary violence.
- How archetypes of blackness can conflict and yet understand each other. Kaluuya’s god-fearing simple minded worker of indeterminate career and Jodie Turner’s sophisticated, high-achieving lawyer exemplify the two poles of black stereotypes while also nodding toward the differences and disparities in Black gender politics.
- The Universality of the black experience: An interesting meta-narrative possibly evidenced by the casting of British actors for both major parts. Interestingly enough with Get Out, Widows and Queen and Slim, Kaluuya has been a pivotal part of three incisive black commentaries.
- The necessity of black tribalism to escape the predation of white supremacy. Throughout the movie Queen and Slim are primarily helped by members of their own community, interestingly enough, although the movie shows intra-community sustenance it doesn’t necessarily oppose it to uniformly bad white action. There is a nuance in Queen and Slim that is unexpected.
- Shared trauma as a binding mechanism for black love.
- The importance of legacy through family and institutions, and the additional alienation minorities can feel when familial structures break down. Taking the fairy tale analogy seriously, metaphorically the killing of Queen’s mother by her Uncle speaks to the reality of intra gender violence and how females can be shaped by their responses to it.
There is real depth here, in these minor arcs and narratives. This is a credit to Matsoukas, Waithe and Frey.
Queen and Slim’s fantastical tour through the South is absolutely fascinating, it cannot be a coincidence that in many ways Queen and Slim’s journey mimics the underground railroad in reverse. A scene of hiding underneath a bed makes it blindingly obvious that Waithe and Frey are arguing through subtext that (a) even in modern times blacks are still struggling for freedom and by reversing the geography of the underground railroad they are also pointing out (b) that the promised land is still not the land of milk and honey. One could argue that they take this critique too far in insinuating that our archetypal couple’s place is entirely outside the country…
The score is fantastic and the cinematography is the sturdiest and most consistent part of this film. Scenes depicting travel on bucolic American highways are rendered spectacularly and the audience is fully brought into Kaluuya’s and Turner-Smith’s joy.
Chloe Sevigny, Flea and Bokeem Woodbine round out the cast but this is Kaluuya and Turner-Smith’s show. Their chemistry is undeniable. In their bickering, bantering and flirting, they bring out the best in each other. Even though Turner-Smith sometimes delivers lines oddly (Turner-Smith seems cold and distant even when she cries).
In a dive bar while on the run, the first hint of the sensuous is revealed and it is dynamite. Turner’s feline presence opposed to Daniel’s stockiness in the dance scene is evocative to the nth degree. Although this scene is so straightforwardly meant to evoke the pathos and nihilism of turn of the century sharecropping agrarian black experience that it almost doesn’t work, the strength of Kaluuya and Turner-Smith’s chemistry sells it well. Their sinuous dance (set to the strains of the genre black musicianship created) centered in the midst of a writhing mass of black humanity is deliciously low-key praise of black form and black rhythm.
The dialogue is brilliantly realistic and overdone in places, in keeping with the unevenness of the movie as a whole. Portions seem almost like a music video product or simply shot for a trailer while others rival the very best that Hollywood has produced this year.
An entire essay could be written about the symbolism of the scene by Queen’s mother’s grave, the years 1963 and 2012 representing highwater marks in black achievement this century and it is not for nothing that a weeping Turner-Smith confesses that in her youth she thought she no longer needed her mother. Unfortunately, no review of this movie is complete without mentioning an achingly misconceived sex scene paired with scenes of protest. A misstep of embracing black sexuality that goes over poorly when contrasted with the masterfully provocative scene in the bar. It is perhaps the least mature aspect of the film.
The ending of Queen and Slim is obvious from the beginning: there will be no justice, there is no hope. All that is left is protest, grief and iconography. The exact means of denouement is likely a spoiler according to the strictest definitions, but it is not exactly opaque to a world where Tamir Rice and Walter Scott existed. Nevertheless, this film is nearly redeemed entirely by the stark images of grieving black humanity set to “Doomed” by Moses Sumney and the literal unveiling of the movie’s ultimate iconic meaning is the finest portion of the movie and is entirely worth the price of admission. In a way Waithe and Frey fail by the very metric they advocate, the cinematic iconography they attempt is incomplete and shattered by their relative inexperience. Yet, even in their failure, there is a success because with any luck the lasting image (yes THAT image) of Queen and Slim will remain as an effective protest against a culture that seeks to dehumanize African-Americans.
Ultimately, Queen and Slim hovers uneasily between moments of sublimity and the sophomoric. Matsoukas, Waithe, and Frey seem so eager to Say-Something-Important- that occasionally they forget to attend to the little details that make stories so valuable. Queen and Slim both suffers and triumphs by their zeal. Rather than any malign intention, “Queen” simply showcases a sort of myopia and naivete that if not commendable is at worst understandable. Distilled, this myopia/naivete paints a picture of black existence bounded entirely by white supremacy. The valor, the pathos the eros of this movie stems directly from the protagonists being acted on instead of acting themselves. For all of its justifiable pretensions of black love, Queen and Slim is ultimately about whiteness.
But that is not the true story nor the true takeaway from this film. Queen and Slim may not be one of the year’s very best films and perhaps it is not even among the most important, but it is a necessary addition to the growing bloc of films showcasing black America’s growing dissatisfaction with anodyne neoliberal progress. With time, Matsoukas, Waithe and Frey will likely become necessary voices in a diversifying Hollywood. But for now, Queen and Slim is a frustrating, wrenching but mostly successful paean to the magnificence of Black America and Black Americans. And that project, no matter how misconceived or mishandled, is worthy of celebration.