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How ‘Queen & Slim’ Subverts Hollywood’s Lovers-on-the-Lam Fixation

We watch movies like ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ because they indulge a romantic notion that equates criminality with passion. But this new film turns those tropes on their head to examine what it’s like to live in a racist society.

At the movies, people in love often have to go on the run. Usually, it’s because they’re outlaws, trying to stay a step ahead of a society that doesn’t understand them and won’t let them be free. There’s something romantic and tragic about that image — you and your significant other out there on the open road, the two of you against the world, hoping to outrun a dark fate you know is coming. But it’s also a very immature way of looking at the adrenaline rush of new love — it makes you think that you’re getting away with something and breaking all the rules. 

What’s powerful about Queen & Slim, an erratic and feverish drama, is that it takes this classic Hollywood trope and skewers it. In the movie, a man and a woman who barely know each other become fugitives because of a mistake. Love develops along the way, but not easily. If anything, they’re bonded by the fact that they’re the only two people in the world trapped in this specific situation. Yet as the film unfolds, we recognize that they’re not so alone — many other people (in the movie and in real life) are stuck in similar scenarios. Queen & Slim strips the romanticism out of the genre entirely. It’s a movie about how facile so many lovers-on-the-lam movies really are.

The film stars Daniel Kaluuya as the unnamed man. (Let’s call him Slim) He’s on a Tinder date with an unnamed woman, Jodie Turner-Smith, who doesn’t seem terribly impressed with him. (Let’s call her Queen.) There’s probably not going to be a second date. He offers to drive her home, and on the way back to her place, a white cop (Sturgill Simpson) pulls them over. The cop makes an assumption about them because they’re black and driving at night. He goes for his gun. An altercation ensues, and the cop ends up dead. Stunned, Queen and Slim don’t know what to do. Almost as if by instinct, they decide they need to flee. After all, they’re black and the cop is white: Who’s going to believe their side of the story?

That setup isn’t terribly different than Thelma & Louise, a story of two close female friends who kill a would-be rapist and make a run for it, assuming no one will believe their version of events. But Queen & Slim also recalls plenty of other road movies — like Pierrot le Fou, Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands — in which outcast lovers run afoul of the law. Usually with these movies, the idea is that the characters are antiheroes: Sure, they’re criminals, but they represent the spirit of rebellion and revolution. The cops trying to stop them are the Establishment, the Status Quo, the enemy. We’re meant to root for the criminals.

Thelma & Louise radically reinvented the genre by letting its characters symbolize a marginalized group — women — so that we understood how, long before the police was on their trail, they’ve always been treated with suspicion and disdain by a patriarchal society. Queen & Slim goes even further, painting a picture of modern America in which black men and women, whether criminals or not, are always being targeted. The movie makes so many others in this genre look shallow and posturing by comparison. There’s no escapist thrill to Queen & Slim, because there is no escape for the characters.

Recently, Carvell Wallace wrote in The New York Times about how much Queen & Slim affected him, drawing a line between the characters’ plight and this country’s painful, unresolved history of slavery:

“Slavery is never far from [Queen and Slim]. The choice between being free and becoming the state’s property began long before they became fugitives from the law. They drive through the American South, passing a prison work farm, chasing a freedom that is always farther ahead of them than death is behind them.

“Their task, then, is to learn how to live a life, a full and loving life, wedged in the narrow space between captivity and death — a spiritual state of being that many black people in America understand in our souls, because those circumstances lie in wait around every corner and have for centuries.”

Anyone who finds that description overblown will probably blanche at Queen & Slim’s hyperbolic flourishes and melodramatic touches. (The movie can be preachy, and some of its plot points can seem, well, unsubtle in regards to the real-world parallels that the filmmakers are trying to draw.)

But unlike so many lovers-on-the-lam films, there’s very little sense of liberation in Queen and Slim’s odyssey. First-time feature director Melina Matsoukas and Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe have made a road movie where every path is a dead end. As Queen and Slim check in on family members or kill time at a local roadhouse, the camera notes all the other disenfranchised faces they meet along the way. It’s almost as if, by shooting that cop and fleeing, this woman and man have entered a grim new reality, one where they’re hiding out from conventional society because they know they’re no longer safe there. The bitter irony, of course, is that in Queen & Slim, that reality is entirely populated by black faces. They’re all relegated to the same hell, and always have been.

Whenever Queen & Slim missteps, I wondered if the problem wasn’t the movie’s but, rather, mine. There’s a lot of lip service paid to the need for diversity in Hollywood, but one of the reasons it’s vitally important is that it allows voices that aren’t mine — a straight white man’s — to communicate their experiences through a medium I understand very well. And sometimes, what might seem (to me) tonally off or misjudged is, in fact, a different perspective that I don’t share and could certainly learn from.

Queen & Slim takes a quintessential Hollywood genre — the lovers-on-the-lam drama — and reminds us how much privilege is inherent in these films. Bonnie and Clyde is about bored, entitled brats. Badlands is about a remorseless murderer and his possibly sociopathic girlfriend. Even a buddies-on-the-lam picture like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid feels comparably smirking: It’s two good-looking dudes who just dig robbing banks and trains. To be fair, those movies were made in the midst of the counterculture, which sought to strike back at a repressive society. But, by and large, the storylines were about and crafted by white men, not exactly the most oppressed of groups.

You could argue that these films were also for white audiences, inviting that group of viewers to identify with the antiheroes, flattering them into believing that they’re as dangerous and subversive as the outlaws. People like me can live vicariously through the criminals’ misdeeds, safe in the knowledge that nothing will actually happen to us in real life.

Matsoukas and Waithe do something different: They show white viewers what life feels like for black people, even if they’ve never run afoul of the law. Much like Thelma & Louise, Queen & Slim isn’t about criminals — it focuses on two innocent people who stumbled into trouble. (Sure, Louise killed a guy, but you can at least understand her anger, even if you don’t condone her actions.) With Queen & Slim, the danger isn’t theoretical — it’s a daily anxiety for the main characters. (They haven’t done anything wrong when they’re nearly killed by the cop they end up shooting in self-defense.) Once Queen and Slim go on the run, they’re simply literalizing an imperiled feeling they’ve always known. 

Usually in these sorts of film, the antiheroes die in a blaze of glory, the final proof that the characters were too pure for this cruel, narrow-minded world. But while watching Queen & Slim, I realized something. I wasn’t one of the antiheroes — I was someone the movie was indicting for perpetuating this country’s systemic racism. (There are two white liberal characters in the movie, played by Flea and Chloë Sevigny; tellingly, they’re basically worthless in helping the main characters.) I imagine this film will make a lot of white viewers uncomfortable and defensive. That’s just as well. For too long, we’ve had the good fortune to watch stories about outlaw lovers and think we’re like those people up on the screen. In Queen & Slim, for once, we’re the cops. We’re the Establishment. We’re truly the film’s bad guys.

Here are three other takeaways from Queen & Slim….

#1. So few black women directed a movie in the 2010s.

Queen & Slim is the feature directorial debut of Melina Matsoukas, an acclaimed music video director (Beyoncé’s “Formation”) who’s also worked on the series Insecure and Master of None. The film puts her in exceptionally rarefied air: Most of us know that the vast majority of movies are directed by white men, but it’s actually hard to name many movies directed by black women. So, I decided to look back through this decade to see just how many there were. Here’s what I came up with:

My apologies if I missed anyone — I did my best to scour commercial releases as well as major festivals over the past decade, although I fear I may have missed a few names. Nonetheless, I hope my overall point stands: This is a very small list over a 10-year span. To bulk up those numbers, I did a little cheating: As far as I can tell, Bodomo’s, Dunye’s and Kibinge’s films didn’t get proper theatrical releases. (They played at festivals only.) But I decided not to include Beyoncé’s self-directed concert film Homecoming because it only played on Netflix. (It’s very possible I missed other black female directors whose movies were only available on Netflix.)

Is there hope that the number of black female directors will be going up soon? In 2018, only one black woman directed any of that year’s top 100 highest-grossing movies: DuVernay with A Wrinkle in Time. This year, four black women are part of the Oscar conversation — Chukwu with the prison drama Clemency, Lemmons with the Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, Diop with the Best International Film entry Atlantics and Matsoukas with Queen & Slim — which is the faintest sign of progress, I suppose. But no matter how you slice it, the statistics are pretty depressing.

#2. People are still losing their mind over Daniel Kaluuya’s British accent.

In the States, Daniel Kaluuya is probably best known for his work in Sicario, Get Out, Black Panther, Widows and now Queen & Slim — five movies in which he does not speak with a British accent. But because Kaluuya is, in fact, British, it’s always funny when he’s out promoting a new movie and talks in his normal voice…

…because you invariably get freak-out tweets like these:

Kaluuya has done plenty of theater, as well as that one Black Mirror episode, in his normal speaking voice, but not since Hugh Laurie and House has a British actor confounded American audiences with his ability to not sound like himself while playing an indelible role.

Of course, there’s also a racial element involved in people’s surprise about Kaluuya’s accent. In a 2018 profile in The Guardian, the Oscar-nominated actor recalls an anecdote about visiting Florida as a kid with his mom. While out in public, a homeless woman heard him talking. “[She yelled] ‘They have black people in England? I thought it was just Prince Charles and shit.’ And, like, that’s what they think; I mean, Idris Elba has helped. Chiwetel Ejiofor has helped. But, like, cool, we exist. Why do we need approval to exist?”

Amusingly, in that same profile, Kaluuya mentions that, after Get Out, he asked his mom what she thought of his American accent. Her response: “Nearly there.” Maybe he should stick with his normal voice: Every woman I know can’t get enough of his British accent.

#3. Yes, it’s that James Frey who’s one of the film’s producers.

Queen & Slim is one of the few studio movies that’s written and directed by black artists. But while scanning the credits, you may be surprised to see one particular name: James Frey, who’s listed as a “story by” writer (along with Waithe, who also wrote the screenplay) and producer. In case you’re wondering, it’s that James Frey, the one who briefly was massively acclaimed for his harrowing memoir, A Million Little Pieces, before it was uncovered that much of it was fabricated. Frey has written other works since then, but most everyone still associates him with the fall from grace that occurred after A Million Little Pieces was exposed. 

So what role did Frey have in Queen & Slim? Waithe explained recently:

“I wanted to share a ‘story by’ credit with him because he pitched the catalyst to me at a party,” said Waithe. The multi-hyphenate said that Frey told her that he had an idea for a movie that he can’t write. “I was like, ‘OK, what’s the idea?’ And he was like, ‘Let’s put a black man [and] a black woman on a first date, on their way home they get pulled over by a police officer, things escalate, they kill him in self-defense and they go on the run.’ And I was like, ‘Oh man, yeah, you can’t write that.’ But I was like, I think there’s something there. And so we just exchanged information and he had an outline for it… I was like, I don’t want any of that, I just want that little seed. And also out of respect… because of that seed… I’m going to plant that and make a movie out of it, so I thought it was fair that we share a ‘story by’ credit.” 

Waithe went on to say that she conceived the Queen and Slim characters on her own and wrote the screenplay by herself. I’m not fully conversant in the Writers Guild’s labyrinthine rules for determining writing credits, but this arrangement definitely seems to fall into the normal protocol: If a writer has an idea for something, and then another writer actually writes the screenplay, the first one is a “story by” writer and the second is credited as the screenplay writer.

Incidentally, you might be wondering, “Hey, did anyone ever think about making a movie out of A Million Little Pieces?” The answer is yes: Last year, an adaptation premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It starred Aaron Taylor-Johnson as James, a drug addict heading to rehab, and was directed by his wife Sam Taylor-Johnson, who also directed Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s not very good, in part because it never digs into the fact that the original book’s incidents were later disputed; the movie treats it like a fictional story. As a result, this is just one more story about addiction and recovery.

But don’t take my word for it: A Million Little Pieces will finally be coming to theaters and on-demand starting December 6th. As far as I can tell, Frey had nothing to do with the movie. (The Taylor-Johnsons wrote the screenplay.) By this point, I’d understand if he’d rather everyone forget all about that part of his life.