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Queen & Slim Should Have Been a Great Movie


By Lawrence Ware | @law_writes | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Saturday, December 21, 2019.


Melina Matsoukas is an artful director who showed with her first feature what we already knew from her shorter collaborations with Issa Rae, Beyoncé and others: that she has an eye for how Black people should be lit and framed to maximize their beauty on the silver screen. The soundtrack is bangin’, reminiscent of the ’90s when movies like Waiting to Exhale and Above the Rim were released alongside great albums.

And though he will not be nominated for the role or mentioned when people discuss great performances of the year, Bokeem Woodbine’s portrayal of Uncle Earl, and what war does to Black men when they return home, was masterful. 

Queen & Slim could have been great. It should have been great—if the movie was not so damn frustrating. Let’s begin with the lack of coherence that reveals itself early in the film.

Angela “Queen” Johnson and Ernest “Slim” Hines (played wonderfully by Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya) are still shaking from their run-in with the officer, they have a tense encounter with a White gas-station attendant, who says he will pay for their gas if only Slim will let him hold his gun. After some hesitation, Slim hands the gun over. The attendant looks at the gun adoringly and shockingly points it at Slim for what feels like an eternity. He then smiles and hands the gun back. 

That’s it. The tension evaporates. We can see newspapers on the counter announcing that Slim is a fugitive from the law, but nothing else comes from that scene— Queen and Slim just go on their way. The reality is that no Black man on the run would give his gun up—especially to a random White man at a gas station. This scene makes no sense, but the film’s lack of coherence wouldn’t be so glaring if it were not for two more unforgivable missteps that a Black thriller cannot make in 2019. 

First, as moviegoers in barbershops, college classrooms and on Black twitter have discussed: weren’t they supposed to be on the run?

Later in the film, Queen and Slim make their way to a juke-joint that was so stereotypical it should have been called the Dew Drop Inn. Instead of acting like people on the run and heading straight for the border, they make the incomprehensible decision to stop in, dance and have a few drinks. The dancing is beautifully shot, with hypnotizing flashes of dancers against a wall. But the predicament of the characters means they should have been on the go. They can drink and dance all they want once they are in a country without an extradition treaty with the United States. 

But what really upset me and a number of Black folks in America, is what happens in the last ten minutes of the film. It’s both nonsensical and deeply disturbing.

At the end of the film, Queen and Slim  are on their way to a plane. It seems like they are going to make it to Cuba, their goal all along. The duo are dropped off and start walking to the plane when, out of nowhere, police swarm them. After they exchange some tender words, Queen is shot in the heart without warning. 

There is a case to be made that the police are the embodiment of White supremacy, and that is why she was shot without forewarning. The Black police officer who lets them go earlier undermines this position. And what happens next is what is truly bizarre. Distraught, Slim picks up Queen and begins to slowly walk toward the police officers, ignoring their commands to drop her. After he takes a few steps, the police officers open fire on him.

He was carrying the body of a woman, so he posed no real threat to the officers on scene. They killed him because the filmmakers, including the screenwriter Lena Waithe, wanted this to not just be a tragedy (Queen’s death alone was enough to make it that), but a melodramatic one. They wanted to manipulate the audience. They wanted us so distraught by the death of our beloved protagonists that we leave with tears in our eyes. Well, it worked. But after the tears, I was angry.

I’m tired of Black death. I’ve seen it on shaky phone cameras. I’ve seen it on dashcam recordings. I’ve seen it on television. I’ve seen it for years on movie screens. I’ve seen enough of it that if I never see another traumatic death of a Black person I will die a happy man. I’m tired of consuming fiction that place it at the center of the narrative, and that is what the uproar on Black twitter is about. It makes me wonder if it was mostly White people writing reviews of the film before it came out—because eight out of ten black reviewers would have seen the problems with the climax of the film.

Tragedy has been a feature of fiction since the beginning of storytelling, but when your life is tragic, sometimes you need hope. Queen & Slim denied us that hope, and that is what is so frustrating about the film — what kept it from the realm of greatness and relegated it to the category of good.

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Lawrence Ware is codirector of the Africana studies program and teaching assistant professor and diversity coordinator in the department of philosophy at Oklahoma State University. He is a contributing writer to Slate Magazine, the New York Times, and The Root.



Queen & Slim Should Have Been a Great Movie

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