I would like to start by saying I have been reluctant to write this. People of color and women in the film industry constantly contend with being undermined and under-recognized, the persistently exclusionary Oscar nominations being only one example of this rampant inequity. Even with the involvement of two heavy-hitter cultural producers — two-time Grammy Award-winning music video director Melina Matsoukas, and Emmy award-winning writer and queer cultural icon Lena Waithe — and major box office success, Queen & Slim was no exception. Several news outlets reported that members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association refused to even attend any screenings of the film. Even at a time when films by and for Black people have experienced a great deal of success, criticism feels like a form of soft betrayal. Yet in the case of Queen & Slim, it feels dangerous not to ask for more. Although I am grateful for the conversations on Black joy and love that this film has sparked, it flattens the experience of being Black in a time of heightened white supremacy, and in the end leads us nowhere.
Queen & Slim aspires to be a Black tragedy of mythic proportions. A beautiful, sharp yet guarded Black woman (Jodie Turner-Smith) and an empathetic, pious yet directionless Black man (Daniel Kaluuya) share a mundane Tinder date, only to have their lives completely change on the way home due to an ill-fated altercation with a police officer. It is the kind of slip into criminality that has terrorized Black people for centuries, a symptom of the precarity that defines Black life in the United States. As video of the incident goes viral, we watch Queen/Angela and Slim/Ernest (who remain nameless until the end of the film) go on the run, seeking refuge in New Orleans, Georgia, and later, Florida — all the while fearing the repercussions of that evening on their lives and the lives of those touched by their story.
The characters act as a literal vehicle, traversing trauma on repeat, yet never quite engaging with it, never delving deeper. In the end, their journey reveals nothing new, innovative, or liberating for Black audiences; the film’s final message being that no matter how hard we try under systems of capitalism and white supremacy, love and joy will be squashed. White supremacists are among the biggest dangers oppressed people currently face and despite the fact that the film purports to speak to Black audiences, all I hear from it is that Black resistance inspires only senseless violence, and in the end, it is those that look like us that we should fear most.
Take, for example, the film’s protest scene, in which an instance of senseless (and narratively superfluous) violence occurs, further pitting Black folks against each other. That this scene is intercut with the film’s only sex scene yields a troubling repetition of the conflation of Black sexuality with criminality, which has plagued cinema since its very beginning.
This is a film that wants to contend with Black grit and intellectualism, to walk the street and sit in the ivory tower. But in failing to acknowledge the nuances of each, it flattens and compounds these different facets of Blackness into nameless characters; Matsoukas and Waithe fall short of engaging with or truly depicting anyone. In the end, Queen and Slim, and all the other composite characters in the film are archetypes, stand-ins, poor summaries. In trying to take it all on, the filmmakers have conflated love and trauma-bonding, agitation and activism, misery and depth, and in doing so have retraumatized the audience they hoped to inspire.
We deserve better. We are better. We deserve names and specificity. We deserve nuance.
Throughout the run of the film’s publicity campaign, Waithe has quoted Nina Simone in saying an “artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” Yet while Waithe and Matsoukas set out to meticulously chart the trauma of Black people across the American landscape in a visually powerful way, they failed to fully understand the calls of activists and other cultural producers. Simone’s now famous statement was in defense of artists taking up political messages in their work, especially in desperate times, in order to shape and mold the world around them, not merely summarize it. We need activist art that not only points to, licks, and stylizes the wound, but art that is thought-provoking and reparative. We need justice.
Queen & Slim (2019), dir. Melina Matsoukas, will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime starting today.