It's freezing cold in Cleveland, Ohio, when Queen & Slim's titular characters Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) go on a forgettable first date from Tinder. But as Slim drives Queen home to presumably never speak again, Slim is pulled over by a bully with a badge who changes the course of their lives forever. On the run for their lives, Queen and Slim fall in love and try to clear their names. That's the premise of the director Melina Matsoukas' feature film debut penned by Lena Waithe.
After watching the trailer and the first 15 minutes of the film with Matsoukas in a theater on the Universal lot, Shadow And Act joined other journalists for a Q&A with the Formation and Insecure director.
"I think the largest thing I want people to get out [Queen & Slim] is to create that dialogue, to have people talking about both sides, to change the political climate that we’re in, in some way," Matsoukas told Shadow And Act of why the film flips the roles and has Slim kill the aggressive cop instead of the other way around. "You know so I think obviously there’s gonna be people on on both sides of this narrative and hopefully most are on the right side of history and we’re part of like changing that narrative into a space that has justice for Black people," she said.
Queen is also a civil rights attorney with a focus on saving people from death row. In addition to addressing the legality of the death penalty in the United States, Matsoukas also shared that there are many other themes she addresses in the film.
"Love is definitely one, police brutality is another theme. You know, we created this film to honor those Black lives - people who have lost their lives, because of police brutality and and try to bring that conversation to the table. But also the main theme is love," Matsoukas said. "I love the backdrop of our social - our racial climate for this story because it makes it contemporary, but that’s really the main theme is is Black love and how in our unity as Black people thats our best power fight against injustice to fight against oppression."
In the trailer for the film, Queen's uncle calls the two fugitives "Bonnie and Clyde." As to whether that iconic duo was the basis for this film, she said:
I just read an article about Black love stories being based on kinda white archetypes and how nothing can kinda ever be our own and so like yes the uncle calls them the "Black Bonnie and Clyde," but that’s not really who they are. A lot of my references and influences come from Black culture just because thats who I am. One of them is actually from one of the best filmmakers I know Hype Williams, who was an amazing, hip hop music video director in the nineties and I had never seen Black people shot in the way and captured in the most beautiful way that he he was able to do."
As for her other influences, Matsoukas credits Black icons:
Spike Lee obviously I think for creating films that really delved into the political climate of that time and captured them in such a wonderful aesthetic. Another filmmaker I love who I think her work is also very much based in authenticity is Mira Nair, but she also offered me a glimpse into Indian culture that I didn't know and I grew up seeing a lot of her films and being so inspired by her as a woman Indian filmmaker. Lastly I’ll go to the queen I think of Black women filmmakers, Julie Dash and Daughters of the Dust and I remember seeing that when I was so young and she also just captured this culture. She made a film called Daughters of the Dust which is about, uh, the Gullah culture in North Carolina off the islands. But she was such a tremendous influence I think on my voice and just my being as an artist and a filmmaker.
As for choosing newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith in the role of Queen, alongside Oscar-nominee Daniel Kaluuya, Matsoukas said:
"She is special," Matsoukas said of Turner-Smith. "Both Lena and I wanted to use this opportunity as a platform to introduce a new, Black actress into the world. A new voice, a new face, a new performer, and you know we had a challenge because Daniel was attached to the film beforehand and I always say he's our Sidney Poitier, he's our Paul Robeson, our Denzel Washington, he is a force to be reckoned with and we knew we needed like a very strong performer, especially if she was gonna be a less experienced one, that would be able to stand her ground against him. And she came into that audition and she killed it. There was no question that she was our Queen and when we brought him in after she had auditioned and we had kinda decided on her and we brought him in to do a test, she was so confident and others, they shrank under his talent and she stood up there, standing tall and honestly made him blush on their first meeting and we were like, 'That’s the one.'
As for the significance of casting dark skinned actors in these roles and naming them common Black nicknames like Queen and Slim, Matsoukas said:
"It’s actually pretty sad that you haven't seen too many Black love stories- especially shared between two dark skin actors. That was really important to us and trying to kinda change the idea of what beauty is by casting two very stunning and strong actors that are both on the darker side of the spectrum. But it wasn't really based on anyone specific; we wanted to make our own, Black love story that felt modern and then in terms of Queen and Slim...it was just like they're supposed to represent kind of all of us, all the different shades of Black and all the different styles of and pieces of our culture and thats why they have names that you commonly hear in the neighborhood and the communities and you honestly don't find out what their true names are until the end."