Penned by Emmy Award winner Lena Waithe, and helmed by visionary artist and Grammy Award winner Melina Matsoukas in her feature directorial debut, the drama film Queen & Slim is unlike anything we’ve seen before in cinema. The film follows an unlikely pairing: Slim (Daniel Kaluuya), a blue-collar guy with a subdued temperament, and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith), a fiercely determined lawyer, who find themselves on a lackluster first date. However, things take a drastic turn when they kill a police officer in self-defense. As they embark on a race for their lives, they flee from Cleveland to New Orleans before eventually landing in Florida. All the while, police are hot on their trails. While en route, the duo unpacks the current state of Black America, police brutality, their own humanity and their developing feelings for one another.
“If you’re thrown into a situation with somebody you’re not familiar with, you learn about that person real fast, especially in a situation like this,” Waithe explained when Shadow And Act stopped by their New Orleans set during filmiing. “Again, they’re very different. They handle things very differently–they relate to each other very differently; they walk through the world very differently.”
Well before Kaluuya and Turner-Smith sat in a turquoise Catalina together, Waithe knew she needed someone extraordinary to bring her vision to life. Matsoukas, who has given us everything from Rihanna’s “We Found Love” music video, to Beyoncé’s “Formation” and Master of None’s “Thanksgiving” episode, was the only person The Chi creator knew she could trust with Queen and Slim’s story. “I think it’s like Michael [Jackson] with Quincy [Jones],” she explained. “I just feel so honored. She’s such a talent. You guys know the work she’s done. Everybody was trying to get her to do a movie, and for her to say, ‘This is the movie, this is the thing I want.’ She’s like, ‘A lot of people give me gifts, but this is the gift I wanted to receive.'”
Undoubtedly, there is a particular pressure that comes with presenting a debut feature film to the world. Therefore, Matsoukas had been very deliberate about taking her time before saying “Yes” to Waithe and Queen & Slim. “It spoke to me,” she revealed. “I had been looking for my first feature for a while now –for years, honestly. I’m one where if I’m not passionate about the story, and the storytelling and the writing, I’d rather not do it. If I don’t feel like I can give my all to something, it’s better not to have it. Lena and I had worked together on Master of None, and that was our first collaboration. It was perfect. I didn’t want my passion for Lena and working with Lena to dictate that I would do this film. I had to take that out of it. I read the script, and I couldn’t put it down. Once I read it, I said, ‘Absolutely! Yes.’ That never happens. To read something that you gravitate toward immediately was an honor, a pleasure, a relief, and really inspiring. I put that script down, and I was like, ‘Let’s go.'”
Once the script was in order, and Matsoukas was on board, the next big hurdle that Waithe had to jump through was finding her perfect cast to bring the vision and the main themes of Queen & Slim to life. Academy Award nominee Daniel Kaluuya was the first actor attached to the project. “Lena came to a Get Out screening,” Kaluuya remembered. “That’s where I first met her. She mentioned this Bonnie and Clyde movie, and I was like ‘What’s that!?’ I met up with her, and then she sent it to me. On the way back from Comic-Con for Black Panther, I read it, and I was like, ‘I want it. I want to play Slim.’ He just feels like an everyman. He feels like a guy that wants to do good, but things happen. Standing up for yourself is dangerous sport…”
For her part, Turner-Smith didn’t hear about the project until after it was announced publicly. “When the press release came out about the project, I forwarded the article to my team, and I was like, ‘look at this,'” Turner-Smith laughed. “Just the fact that it was Lena Waithe and Daniel Kaaluya, I was like, ‘What is this project? I want to know.’ The concept of it being a Black Bonnie and Clyde—it was that project that everybody knew about that we all wanted to be in. Then I read the script, and I was like, ‘What’s up with this?!’ On paper, it was just a fascinating project. When I read it, and I read the character, I was like this is really interesting and complex. Queen is a woman who’s in a lot of pain, which I thought was so compelling.”
When two very different people who have two distinct perspectives on life come together there is bound to be some sort of explosion–good or bad. “Queen goes on this date in a moment of, ‘I’m going to go on this date to have a connection with somebody,” the Nightflyers actress explained. “She’s not close to anyone. She’s coming out of losing a case, and she’s in a really negative headspace. Once she gets on the date, it’s expectations vs. reality. You turn up for the date, and it’s ‘Ehhh,’ but you sit through it. She’s so familiar with the injustice of the penal justice system and being at this low already is what spins her out. In Ohio, capital punishment is still very much in effect. Harming a police officer in the line of duty is a capital crime, it’s an automatic death penalty. Therefore, what ensues is a desperate moment for her.”
While Queen is more militant (a Malcolm X to Slim’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), and has spent her entire life and career as a lawyer railing against injustices, Slim is much more reserved. “That’s why it spoke to me, man,” Kaluuya revealed. “I’ve been through certain situations with the police trying to mess up my career. A lot of my friends can’t even get into the country because of saying ‘Yes’ to a situation they shouldn’t have said yes to at 14 or 15. I understood that. I remember we did the opening scene in Cleveland and it was really triggering for me. It really messed me up like a little bit. It was dark at the start. We’re so desensitized to the imagery of Black people being beaten up by the police.”
Because Slim is so subdued in the beginning, the character was very interesting for Kaluuya to navigate. “It’s complicated,” he said slowly. “I think Slim is a guy that’s not overtly masculine. When the film starts, a Black woman in the audience could see him and go, ‘hmm’ because of how he carries himself —how wishy-washy he can be at times. We assign specific characteristics to Black men and when they don’t rise to meet them–. Slim obviously goes on a journey, but Queen has that passion from the jump. She’s got the plan. Slim finds his groove within it, and his version of it is the stuff that he needs to grow in order to be the man that he wants.”
Turner-Smith continued unpacking Slim’s character, “If Martin [Luther King] is forced to be violent for some reason, how does he react to that? How does he feel about himself? How does he feel about what violence is now? That’s why it’s very clever the way Lena has plotted it because these dilemmas make them challenge those character journeys.”
Gender roles and how they are perceived and implemented in the Black community are also highlighted in Queen & Slim. “Black love is a theme in the film,” Waithe explained. “Not just romantic Black love, but a love that Black people have for each other. You see that on their journey. We’re all connected. There’s also a thing about how we love each other. There’s a very beautiful line when Queen goes to see her uncle, and he has a woman at his home. She says, ‘I know out there he ain’t shit, but in here I treat him like a king.'”
Since large chunks of Queen & Slim take place in a moving vehicle getting the right vibe between the actors was essential. They had to really gel so that their emotions would be displayed outright on the screen, even when they didn’t have the physical use of their entire body in the frame. “The first time I’d met Daniel was in the chemistry read, and it was like, ‘Whoa,'” Turner-Smith said. “I’d seen him in Black Mirror and obviously Get Out. I just got this privilege of falling in love with this person on camera. He’s such a wonderful human being.”
For his part, the Widows actor affirmed that working with Turner-Smith has been a dream. “She’s amazing, and she’s so smart and so on it and really open and supportive,” he reflected. “This is a tough shoot; it’s a very tough schedule; there’s a lot on our backs. So you feel really privileged to have her there to bounce stuff off of, and spend some time outside of it and kind of go through stuff. It’s good. She’s a very special talent.”
Throughout Queen and Slim’s voyage, Matsoukas and Waithe wanted to be certain that the audience also saw how the world reacted to them. “We wanted to speak to their relationship and their relationship with the world,” the director explained. “Everything around them is literally burning.”
If you’ve seen her work, you know how particular Matsoukas is about tone and color. On set, it was evident that the color scheme of Queen & Slim would play a significant role in how the audience digests the film visually. “I think everything about our colors is based on authenticity,” the New York University alum reflected. “We started the story in Cleveland, so we wanted it to be a lot of cooler tones and feel very cold, kind of isolated. Then as their relationship warms up, so does our color. As they warm up, they take a road trip, and that ends in Florida. The colors warm up, they become richer, whereas we started in a more desaturated kind of world.”
As filming wrapped for the day, Matsoukas reflected on the experience as a whole saying, “It’s just an honor to be on this journey and really push the culture forward and have something to say, and also entertain at the same time,” she said. “For me, something that is really important as an artist is that you get to be political and have substance in your work, but you also get to entertain and reach the masses. I try to have that balance in everything I do.”
Waithe added, “I carry every story I write with me. ‘Thanksgiving’ is still with me, the pilot for The Chi is still with me, Twenties is with me always. These are pieces of me. I always say I want to leave my blood on the page. If I can do that, then I’ll live forever.”
The first teaser trailer for Queen & Slim will air during the BET Awards, Sunday, June 23, 2019.
Queen & Slim will be released in theaters, Nov. 27, 2019.
Photo: Andre D. Wagner/ Universal Pictures.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide