Programme Notes: Queen & Slim


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Queen & Slim

 Spoiler Warning: Please note this text contains key spoilers about the end of Queen & Slim in the first paragraph. We recommend you read this after viewing the film.


Angela and Ernest: these are the real names of Queen and Slim, protagonists on the run in Melina Matsoukas’ debut feature, yet we don’t learn them until the end of the film, when the couple are brutally killed in a police shooting laden with symbolism. “People don’t know Black people’s names until someone kills us,” says writer Lena Waithe of her motivation behind that ending.[i]

Matsoukas and Waithe’s road movie is situated in the lineage of Black American cinema from the last decade: galvanised by the Black Lives Matter movement and by increased discourse on police brutality, systemic racism – particularly in the criminal justice system – and generational trauma, and in continuous dialogue with this context. Early on, Queen and Slim talk about the death penalty still being legal in Ohio, where they kill a police officer in self-defence. According to recent NAACP figures, Black citizens make up 42% of prisoners on death row, while only around 12% of the US population is Black.[ii]

That disproportionate figure is implicit in their decision to flee. The route they choose carries additional meaning, taking them in the opposite direction from that of the Underground Railroad, the secret 19th century escape route used by enslaved African-Americans to reach free states. Instead of north, Queen and Slim travel south, destination Cuba. Waithe has called it a “reverse slave escape narrative”.[iii]

 Those who fled via the Underground Railroad were often aided by abolitionists and sympathisers, mirrored by the family members, admirers, and supporters who help Queen and Slim on their route south. But this reverse narrative is subtly aware of the traps of self-interest and self-protection; where seemingly benevolent helpers and accomplices might more easily be trusted in other stories, here there is no space for trust. The white sheriff who wants to help could be genuine in his intentions – audiences will never know – but Queen and Slim’s actions speak to an ingrained, and justified, sense of caution in Black communities. This is especially bitter at the end of the film, when they are sold out to authorities by a Black man, later seen counting cash while the news reports on our protagonists’ fate – a searing indictment of a society that nurtures individualism over collectivism, capitalism over community and solidarity.

 Fitting the road movie mould, Queen & Slim has repeatedly been discussed and branded as a ‘Black Bonnie & Clyde’, despite its creators disagreeing with this reading. Yes, it shares similarities with Arthur Penn’s classic crime couple road movie, but the film’s political context greatly transcends the Bonnie & Clyde narrative. “It’s a diminishing way to describe our film, and a lazy way to understand it,” Matsoukas has said.[iv]

 Bonnie & Clyde was created in an era of major socio-political change and protest. Its characters are glamorised, deliberately made into style icons – in a manner similar to Terrence Malick’s Badlands, in which Martin Sheen’s Kit styles himself after James Dean – and yet audiences never lose sight of their crimes and brutality, and police action against them seems only just. Queen and Slim are no gangsters or murderers; they become icons and martyrs against their will, when all they can hope for is survival. We cannot judge their status as outlaws without acknowledging that police and law enforcement are inherently racist structures – thus, unlike characters such as Bonnie and Clyde, they become symbols of a system designed to work against them.

 More than anything, love sits at the centre of Queen and Slim’s personal narrative. Perhaps the film finds its essence in the moments where it gives its protagonists brief moments of relief. In a break with the tropes of many other road movies, Matsoukas and Waithe say that for Queen and Slim, the open landscapes and roads surrounding them can never really convey lawlessness or freedom. Instead, they are used to facilitate fleeting moments of joy and love, which must be found in spite of an inevitable fate.

 Sanne Jehoul

Freelance Journalist and Programmer



[i] Ariana Romero, Kathleen Newman-Bremang, Interview with Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas, https://www.refinery29.com/en-...

[ii] Death Row U.S.A. Winter 2019 report by the Criminal Justice Project of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., https://www.naacpldf.org/wp-co...

 [iii] McKenzie Jean-Philippe, Decoding Queen & Slim, https://www.oprahmag.com/entertainment/tv-movies/a29963826/queen-and-slim-spoilers-symbolism/

 [iv] Pamela McClintock, Interview with Melina Matsoukas, https://www.hollywoodreporter....

 


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