Lena Waithe’s debut film, Queen and Slim, is a reminder that even in epic love, there will always be pain for black people. Written by Waithe and directed by Melina Matsoukas, the story follows Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) as they set off across the country after a minor traffic incident turns into a deadly exchange with the police. The film arrives at a time when many black people feel like they’re not in control of their own lives, with stories being written and unwritten for them. Queen and Slim, with its nuanced and authentic look into the black experience, takes the narrative back.
I saw an advance screening of it at The Underground Museum in Los Angeles last month, surrounded by black community. My favorite films are those that take me on a journey outside of myself while also creating a world in which I’m able to see myself. Queen and Slim did that in resplendent color. I was there: in the car, at the Juke joint, on the run, in love and in pain. I left feeling fully aware that, as a black person, I cannot separate the political from the personal.
Ahead of the release of the Queen and Slim, which hits theaters today, I had the pleasure of chatting with Lena Waithe about the making of the film.
Queen and Slim goes beyond the tried and true narrative of police killing black people, why was it important for you to tell this story?
I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been done. When James Fray pitched [me the idea], something about it stayed with me and I knew I wanted to tell my version of the story. It was during a time in my life where I was feeling like I didn’t have a voice, even though I was working on my first TV show [The Chi for Showtime]. I was a first-time creator, a younger version of myself, and I just didn’t have any power. I felt like I was in a new Jim Crow and I was like, what is going on?
I really wrote this as a rebel cry. That’s what it was. It was me shouting in a room by myself writing this, even though it’s a very quiet and intimate movie. It’s a meditation on blackness, on what it means to be black in America, what it means to fall in love, what it means to think you know yourself, all those things. I’d never seen that [exact] narrative, and I just thought it’s about time because, at some point, the oppressed get sick of the oppressor, and we’re not always mild. This [script] is me not being a polite black person.
The death of Atatiana Jefferson, shot and killed in her own home, happened soon after you made this film. How important is timing? Do you feel like there’s a sense of urgency?
Yes, it’s heartbreaking for me as a black person in the world. Outside of the movie and the business, I’m like everybody else. I’m traumatized by this. She could be my family. As black people we are all connected. I’m connected to you in some way. You could be my cousin, you could be my family. When we hear about another black person being slain (more often than not by a police officer), a part of us dies. I don’t think I thought the problem would become worse after I wrote the movie at all. To me this is an epidemic. It’s open season on black bodies.
A lot of times blackness is accepted or tolerated by mainstream media only to the extent that it doesn’t make non-black people feel too uncomfortable. Once it does, people turn away or stop listening. This film really forces the viewer to face those harsh realities.
Oh yes. With Queen and Slim, we had complete autonomy. [The execs] knew this was a really powerful script, and I think they knew that it was a powerful team, and understood they would not have any part in the creative process of this film, and that’s why it feels the way it does.
I love all my execs and I am grateful to be in business with them, but a big note I often get on my other projects (which are mostly populated by black people) is: “Can we have more joy? Can we get more laughter? Can they do the electric slide after this scene?” And yet you can watch a white movie without one laugh in it. It’s such a frustrating note. I’ve tried to make sense of it and [have concluded] that there is a guilt. There is still a guilt [for white people] about looking at black people existing in a space that is not there to entertain them, they don’t want us to establish that it is their fault. But ultimately, black folks get depressed too. Black folks don’t do a song and dance in the middle of a dramatic scene to make you feel more comfortable.
To me it’s an experience of what it means to be black. I tried to make it very honest and real to us. I don’t sugarcoat or explain anything. I treated it like a white movie. When you watch a white movie, they don’t do that, they are very much so in their own world and they don’t care about who else doesn’t understand that world. That’s what I wanted Queen and Slim to feel like for black people.
No tiptoeing or navigating any emotions…
None of that. This is for us. And those who are not us, can come and see it and get a peek behind the curtain, which is a privilege in my opinion.
I feel it. The nuances and details really stood out to me particularly in the authentic dialogue between Queen and Slim. I felt like I was a part of their conversation versus watching it.
Wow yeah, I like to be very specific in my work because black people are very specific. Even the way I write my dialogue, the language that we have is very unique. It’s something I really worked hard on. I listen to the cadence of black people, there is a thing that we invented. It’s not “What are you gonna do?” it’s “What you gon’ do?”” When I say that, there is a familiarity to that sound. I don’t code-switch in this movie.
As a black woman myself, one of the most powerful scenes to me, was the sex scene—not for the obvious reasons, but because I felt like I was watching performance art. Especially seeing two darker-skinned black people moving in a way that was non-exploitative, but just beautiful. They weren’t “black bodies.” And it being intercut with the riot made it even more powerful.
I am a very visual writer. If you ever read my scripts, the action lines are almost more fun, and are me. The dialogue is not my voice. I can’t always agree with the characters, so I remove myself. But in the action lines you get my authentic self. So I was very particular and very mindful of that. When I wrote the scene that way—[intercut with the riot]—I remember Melina being like, “What! I don’t know, that seems cheesy,” but I was like, “Trust me dog.” To me, both almost represent opposite sides of the same coin. They are finally letting their walls down and are becoming one for the first time, and it’s bigger than sex. They are taking out their joy and their pain on each other in that moment. But then also relaxing into each other at the same time. That’s the thing I believe about sex—it’s a release but it’s also a need to let out an aggression at the same time. And intercutting it with the riot is showing us how oblivious they are to the fire they started, because in essence it has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with the state in which we live as a people.
I really appreciate that you appreciate that scene, because it’s the most complex scene, and choosing to do that is such a climactic moment in the film, literally and figuratively [laughs]. It really is one of the most important scenes I have ever written—that and the ending.
The film is a visual poem. It took me through so many experiences.
Thank you, I appreciate that. I think that’s my mission as a writer. Something I always say when I’m writing is: I have ideas, I know what I want to do, but I always leave room for God to come in, and he came in a lot on this one. When I talk to new writers, I tell them to let this thing tell you where it wants to go. Don’t feel like you always have to be in the driver’s seat.
The stuff that is close to my heart pulls from my own experiences. When Slim tells his story, talking about the birds and the bees and his grandmother, I think that is the piece of writing I’m most proud of because it’s pulled from my own stuff. And [Queen] talking to her Mom’s tombstone, because that’s the stuff I’m still working through, it’s all my shit. When I first started dating my wife, she would have a hard time falling asleep, and she would ask me to tell her a story. That’s me trying to put her in it. And she can’t stand the sound of people eating, and I’m the loudest eater on the planet. So all the little stuff I put in there—that’s my own shit that makes it sound specific. That’s why it’s really an emotional thing when people say, “I like this.” It’s them sort of saying “I like you, there’s a thing about you that I can see in myself.” And it’s a beautiful experience, I think. Whenever I talk to people about it, I feel like we are connecting on a deeper level because I’ve laid myself pretty bare with this movie.
Queen and Slim hits theaters everywhere on Wednesday, November 27, 2019.
Feature Photos via Getty and Universal Pictures.