Four weeks into filming, writer/producer Lena Waithe and her team invited a group of Black journalists to the set of Queen & Slim in New Orleans. The February air was still but thick, a slight reminder that the heaviness of spring and summer was sure to come. But the set hummed with a quiet, jubilant rhythm, because everyone knew something magical was sure to erupt with the Universal Pictures release, slated for Thanksgiving 2019.
Waithe knew it, and so did Melina Matsoukas (Formation, Insecure, Master of None) who makes her first full-length film debut as the movie’s director, along with the film’s costume director, Shiona Turini. Three Black women shape the words, the visuals and the aesthetic in the world of Queen & Slim, played by actors Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya.
The movie takes the ride-or-die motif and flips it on its head to profile the transformative power of Black love, which arises out of a devastating circumstance.
“I’m very much an artist who was raised by people like Gina Prince-Bythewood and Ava DuVernay and Mara Brock Akil who came up at a time where their mentors told them to write the world that you want to live in and I sort of write the world in which I live,” Waithe said. She’s a woman who juggles much of her creativity in between working on The Chi for Showtime and Boomerang for BET.
Queen and Slim are two Black Midwesterners who find themselves inextricably linked after a less than stellar first date. While driving home, they are pulled over during a traffic stop where Slim, in a moment of survival, winds up fatally shooting the lone police officer. It is a shattering and surreal reminder of the swift possibilities that await Black bodies when blue and red lights appear in our rear-view mirrors. We can either walk away to see another day, or end up dead.
“My job is to make the art, to be honest, to be brutal, to be vulnerable and you feel what you feel,“ said Waithe.
Waithe revealed that the movie came about after author James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) who also serves as one of the film’s producers, pitched an opening scene during an industry party. From there Waithe began writing until she completed the script. After working with Matsoukas on her Emmy-award winning Master of None episode, Waithe zoned in to recruit her friend, who after some time, read the script and fell in love.
“It spoke to me. “I had been looking for my first feature for a while now, for years honestly,” said Matsoukas.
“It’s really an honor to be on this journey with my sister and to be able to do this together and really push the culture forward and have something to say and also entertain at the same time,” she continued.
Waithe was inspired by Set It Off, which took from the story of Bonnie and Clyde with a focus on Black women and friendship. Everything you see in the film is a deliberate choice. Everything from placing two dark-skinned actors as leads, to the film’s color palette, the locations the character’s visit while on-the-run, to the clothes.
“The wardrobe goes on a journey just like the characters go on a journey,” Turini said. Turini and her team did extensive research, pulling from past images of freedom fighters, to 90’s hip-hop style, to help curate the look of Queen & Slim.
But it’s not just the super trio of the talented Black women behind the scenes who are aware of the film’s impending power. Kaluuya and Turner-Smith know it too. The film marks Turner-Smith’s first lead role in a film. And there’s a real feeling that she will sky rocket after her turn as Queen. Both actors say they heavily campaigned for their roles because they knew Waithe was creating a project that would undoubtedly sting and soar, while pushing us to examine what we believe in regards to perceived gender roles, and who gets to represent what Black life means in America.
Slim is a big departure from the dominant personalities Kaluuya’s played in Widows and his Oscar-nominating turn in Get Out.
“There’s a different energy to Slim who is more accommodating and less assertive. But he still can stand up for himself, but he’s navigating,” Kaluuya said.
“It’s like a lot of times I do these films and they’re not actually—it’s cathartic for me. Letting s–t out, that’s all acting’s been for me since I was very young, a safe space to let s–t out. If I didn’t I’d be letting it out on the streets,” he continued.
According to Waithe, by the end of the film, Slim who is the Martin Luther King Jr. to Queen’s Malcolm X, end up trading spaces.
“Queen is more the militant, she has structured her whole life around this fight…about how the criminal justice system is structured,” Turner-Smith said.
“I think that there’s an element of claustrophobia to it which makes it sort of easy when you’re trapped in a situation,” Turner said in regards to how the characters spend a good amount of the film in a car. “The way I kind of think of it is like these two people end up getting handcuffed together. So it’s really easy, when you back any animal into a corner, you’re gonna see how it’s feeling.”
Queen & Slim marks Waithe’s participation in the ongoing movement for Black liberation.
“I’m here instead of marches because that what my job entails. I kind of have to be here for a couple of months or I have to be in the writer’s room for three months at a time, I can’t always make it to the marches and the rallies,” she said.
“But to me when I sit down at my computer, that’s me, that’s my rallying cry. That’s me trying to figure out who we are.”
The film will open nationwide on November 27.