Queen & Slim is not a holiday movie. There is nothing festive about the story of a black couple who, after a mediocre first date, find themselves on the run after shooting a white cop in an act of self-defence, but the film’s release on American Thanksgiving (we'll get it in the UK early next year) does make perfect sense.
This blistering, excruciatingly stressful, but stunningly beautiful and black — so, so, so gloriously black — love story is exactly the right film to coincide with a holiday that serves as a constant reminder of its country’s violent past and present. Set against the backdrop of a burning United States, Queen & Slim is here to remind you that one of its most brutal transgressions — the killing of black bodies by the hands of those who are meant to serve and protect — is as American as watching football.
There’s another reason why Queen & Slim’s release date feels fitting. It's written by the prolific Lena Waithe (Showtime’s The Chi) and directed by Melina Matsoukas (Beyoncé’s Lemonade), who also directed Waithe's Emmy award-winning episode of Master Of None, aptly titled “Thanksgiving.” The serendipity is not lost on the creative duo, who tell me that this opening weekend feels like a full-circle moment. Perched on two plush chairs at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto, Waithe and Matsoukas flank a cardboard cut-out of the already-iconic movie poster of their stars, Daniel Kaluuya (Slim) and Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen) leaning against a car in a tracksuit and snakeskin knee-high boots, respectively.
“I’m with my work wife and not my wife wife on Thanksgiving,” Waithe laughs. “Thanksgiving means everything to us,” Matsoukas chimes in. Not only did they push for this release date, the pair also fought for full creative control of the film, including "breaking a brown-skinned actress," a substantial budget, and final cut — the latter meaning they, not the studio, had ultimate approvals of the finished product, a deal hard to come by in Hollywood, especially for Black creatives. “Knowing the worth of our culture and knowing what happens when we’re allowed to have control of our narrative, that was the only way forward,” Matsoukas says. Waithe has also made headlines recently for saying she refused to take notes from white people. “Really, I didn’t want notes from anyone except [Melina].” says Waithe. “For us to have complete autonomy? That’s why the movie hits different.”
The fact that two black women poured their labour and love into this film and had the freedom to do it exactly the way they wanted is evident and exhilarating on screen. The film made me sob into my popcorn (both times I’ve seen it), but sitting across from Waithe and Matsoukas, who created a masterpiece on their first try (it’s the first feature film for both), was a whole other level of emotion. Here, I hold it together long enough to talk to the duo about Black love onscreen, Kaluuya and Turner-Smith’s chemistry, and what it means if this film has a blockbuster opening weekend.
One of the things about the film that is so singular is the black love story. At its core, this is a love story between Queen and Slim. There are so many quiet moments that showcase black vulnerability and black love in the midst of this very stressful situation. Tell me about the importance of showing that love and how you did it.
Melina Matsoukas: That was one of the things that attracted me to the story. I realised that I hadn’t seen see a black love story in so long and not really had I ever seen it between two dark-skinned actors. I remember going to [film] school and them saying, “Don’t cast a black actress because it won’t be profitable.” I was like, “I’m going to defy that.” It was important for me to promote black unity and promoting black queens and kings being together and lifting each other up. I don’t see that represented on screen and I don’t see that represented in life. How do we bring the black family back together when so many factors ripped us apart? That’s obviously a product of slavery and our oppression, and so I wanted to go against that.
Lena Waithe: I also could not have written this movie had I not had that experience falling in love with my now-wife. [Waithe revealed on Ellen this month that she secretly got married this year.] I didn’t know what it was like to properly fall in love with someone until I did it. I chew loudly like Slim. [Laughs.] She asks me to tell her a story to fall asleep. But those are things Melina can relate to because she knows what it’s like too.
It was important for me to promote black unity and promoting black queens and kings being together and lifting each other up.
And can you speak to the vulnerability in the characters?
MM: I loved how Lena wrote black masculinity through Slim. That’s something we worked on together. His character starting and being able to be vulnerable, but still very much a man. For Queen, I see so much of myself in her and having to be protective because of the trauma black women deal with on a daily basis. It’s difficult for us to allow a black man to lead. We’re forced to navigate through the world in this leadership position and then have to be vulnerable in a relationship. I think it’s beautiful that Slim is accepting of who she is and is able to chip away at [her caution] and even likes it. There’s this banter that [Lena] wrote so eloquently in the beginning and that’s Queen flirting with Slim. I remember getting some notes from white people and they’d be like, “She’s so cold at the start. She so mean to him.” I was like, she’s testing him and she’s flirting with him. That’s the way she talks.
LW: She’s also a lawyer.
MM: Yeah, she has to deal with the trauma of her clients being killed. She’s coming in and saying, "Does this man have the strength and endurance to deal with what I have to deal with?"
Let’s talk about Daniel and Jodie’s chemistry. Whew.
MM: Carmen Cuba, our phenomenal casting director, gave us Jodie in the first round.
LW: We were like, "are we nuts?” that we found her so early.
MM: But we knew it. We were like, she’s our Queen. But we had to get her in a room with Daniel. We had seen some other ones that weren’t working as well. It’s hard. Daniel is really our Paul Robeson so it’s hard to step into a room and go toe-to-toe with him and empower him and elevate his performance as much as he does an actress'. And then Jodie walks in and he shrank. He became Slim in that moment, which is hard. Because if you walk into a Tinder date and Daniel Kaluuya is there, you’re like, “OK! Let’s go!” I needed somebody who felt like you literally are in the presence of royalty. She felt like that. He blushed and became like a kid.
LW: It was an amazing day. Carmen took a photo of the moment and it was almost like [the photo that became the poster]. It was like, wow, that’s our Queen and Slim.
Tell me about the dichotomy of the two characters and how they were inspired by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
LW: I knew I wanted them to be opposites — he’s religious, she’s not. He eats loudly, she doesn’t. She believes in bending the world, he just wants to exist in it. So, I thought, who are the black prototypes of how to be? I had Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. as my road maps for them. It was also about, "How do I get them to eventually swap places?" At the end of Malcom’s life, he became more liberal and more open. Towards the end of Martin’s life, he became more militant. That was a beautiful thing, as I learned about their lives. Just before their lives were unjustly taken, they were moving into these new chapters. That was also me trying to say that right when someone is on the cusp of figuring it out, here comes white supremacy. But you could also do Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.
MM: Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela.
LW: You know what I’m saying? We can do this all day. We have forever had black people and artists, black leaders who are trying to get to the same place but just have a different route and both are valid. That’s the thing I wanted to remember.
There is some really beautiful storytelling told through music in the film. They stop to dance, they have a cute fight over Luther Vandross in the car. Music is another character on their journey. Melina, you come from the world of music videos, of course. Talk about the choices you made with the score and the soundtrack.
MM: Black people live with rhythm that we innately have that we have inherited, so there is no meditation on the black experience without music. We don’t exist without music.
MM: I wanted it to be this myriad of black voices, to our diversity as a people, to show our roots from soul to bounce to hip-hop to afrobeat and really speak to the diaspora. I also wanted it to mark their journey. I didn’t want to throw up signs like, “Oh they are here now, they’re here now.” I wanted them hear that sonically. It’s a sonic journey. When you get to New Orleans, you hear bounce. Then you hear Mike Jones. Then when we’re in Mississippi, it’s the blues. I wanted to bring out the local sounds of who we are as people.
LW: I also wrote in the moment when Slim puts on a gospel song. I thought, “What do black people do immediately when we’re in trouble?” We put on gospel. [Laughs.]
One of my fave lines is: “Why do black people always gotta be excellent? Why can’t we just be ourselves?” Lena, you’ve also spoken to the importance of a film like this doing “excellent” at the box office. Is there a worry that if it doesn’t do well, there won’t be another one?
LW: I think so, just because we haven’t had moments like this. It’s different than Black Panther because we don’t have Marvel behind us. We don’t have an established IP. This is new intellectual property.
MM: It further proves our worth as creators of colour and it helps usher in the next creators of colour. And it forces them to see our value. The more excellent we are, the easier it becomes for the next one. Because white people get to be ordinary all the time. In order to create diversity in industry, it’s important that films like this do well so more films like this get made.
LW: And made in this way so we have control of our narrative.
This interview has been condensed and edited.