About halfway through my screening of instant Oscars bait Queen & Slim, I had come up with an ending I found fitting. Since the story follows the multi-state escape plan of two 20-something-year-old Black Americans — Angela “Queen” Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Earnest “Slim” Hines (Daniel Kaluuya) — I needed to believe they would actually escape. So I imagined Queen and Slim on a tiny plane headed for Cuba as the police closed in on them. We would never learn if the law captured the couple, and that would be fine as long as the possibility of their safety could live on forever.
That is not how Queen & Slim ends, as anyone with the puffy eyes and tear-stained cheeks of someone who saw this movie could tell you. Instead, Queen and Slim are shot and killed by police just as the couple is about to hop on their getaway plane. We see them both die on the airstrip runway, blood streaking the outfits we've come to know them in. The camera then cuts to Queen and Slim’s shared funeral and a graffiti memorial that forever immortalizes them.
It’s gutting — and the way the movie always had to end, writer Lena Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas remind Refinery29.
“I didn’t want to go easy on the audience,” Waithe tells Refinery29 on a Monday morning in Toronto, sitting beside Matsoukas. “I didn’t want to pull punches. I didn’t want to give us some fairytale because the mothers of the movement didn’t have that.”
Matsoukas shared a similar sentiment the day prior during a TIFF event for Queen & Slim. “Black people don’t get a choice to decide if we’re going to run to the plane or drive over the edge like Thelma and Louise,” the director said. “We’re going to go out in a hail of bullets.”
The creative duo had two specific hail-of-bullets tragedies in mind when building Queen and Slim’s ultimately doomed narrative. “I had Malcolm X and Martin Luther King as my road maps for them. It was also about how do I get them to eventually swap places?” Waithe says. She points to the way Malcom X became more “open” towards the end of his life, and King became more “militant” as proof. Both civil rights leaders were assassinated.
“We [as Black people] don’t necessarily have the choice or the option to live long lives and become the people we were meant to be,” Waithe points out.
A big reason Queen and Slim lose that chance is due to the white woman police officer who murders Queen as she surrenders. It’s a subtle but painful reminder of the way misogyny against Black women can harm and even kill them — including at the hands of a supposedly well-meaning white woman like a cop.
“I had learned on the news was that a big reason Trump was in office was because white college-educated women voted for him,” Waithe recalls of her mindset while writing. Matsoukas continues, “Majority. Not just college-educated. The majority of white women voted for Trump. They could allow their prejudice to overcome their own camaraderie with their own sex.”
“It freaked me out. I was like, What?,” Waithe admits. “It was jarring. That to me was a reason to say, Oh, what if the cop who gets nervous and trigger happy is this white female cop? I thought it would be symbolic.”
Although Waithe allows Queen’s death to stand as a metaphor, she and Matsoukas are far more straightforward about what they hope viewers will take from Queen & Slim.
“People don’t know Black people’s names until someone kills us. That’s really where [the ending] came from. It’s almost as if Black people have to die in order for us to be set free,” Waithe explains, citing Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and more modern icons like Nipsey Hustle and Tupac Shakur as devastating examples. “Meaning, Black people are more celebrated in death than in life,” Matsoukas adds. Both women would like to see that change in the wake of their film.
Or, as Waithe said at Queen & Slim’s TIFF event, “What if we started putting murals of [Black] people on walls before they died? Of just regular people?”