“Can I be your legacy?” Queen asks. Slim replies, “You already are.”
As part of a series that aims to open discussion around “critical issues of our time” through movies, the Community Citizenship Film Series of the Office of University Life screened “Queen & Slim” in Miller Theatre on Feb. 26. The screening was followed by a panel, which was moderated by CBS national correspondent Michelle Miller and featured School of the Arts faculty members Ron Gregg and Trey Ellis alongside ESPN and NPR contributor Soraya McDonald.
The film, directed by Melina Matsoukas with a screenplay written by Lena Waithe, tells the story of a young black couple who gets pulled over by a police officer for a minor traffic violation. When the encounter results in the officer’s death, Queen, played by Jodie Turner-Smith, and Slim, played by Daniel Kaluuya, are on the run across the South.
Viewers watch the titular couple’s awkward Tinder date unfold at a diner in Ohio. At the end of their date, they drive to an unknown destination in Slim’s tiny white Honda, while Queen laughs at Slim’s playlist he made for the night. Slim then swerves the car while reaching to take his phone from Queen’s hands. Shortly thereafter, police lights flash behind them, and the awkward tension quickly vanishes as they stopped for traffic violation, shifting to a tone of dread and uncertainty.
The film is visually stunning as it focuses on the protagonists, not just while they move throughout the South in an effort to flee to Cuba, but also as they forge a loving bond amid an unimaginable situation.
“I think the film is trying to do two things at the same time. They really concentrate on the Bonnie and Clyde love story part, and the vehicle for that is this tragic, constant litany of police killings. So that’s why I think that the plot mechanics of that are clumsy, [while] the rest of the love story is so elegant,” Ellis said.
“Queen & Slim” is Matsoukas’s full-length feature directorial debut. Her previous directing credits include music videos, such as Beyonce’s “Formation” and “Pretty Hurts” and seven episodes of the HBO series Insecure. Gregg discussed the film’s complexity, noting the complicating scene in which a teenager purposely shoots a police officer point-blank. He also mentioned that its ending is reminiscent of the story of Bonnie and Clyde. Such complications and references, Gregg said, are hallmarks of Matsoukas’ whole body of work.
“It’s a very complicated film. It’s presenting a complicated history; it’s referencing other films. The aesthetics that she draws upon are traits of her music videos, and it feels like I’m watching Beyonce’s ‘Formation,’” Gregg said.
The film introduces the idea of a modern-day reverse underground railroad. In their Thelma and Louise-style flight, Queen and Slim run from the law in Cleveland, Ohio, and make their way through the South towards Florida. Through this inverse of North to South, McDonald and the panel emphasized that there are new forms of slavery in the United States today in the oppression and racial profiling that are embedded in the social and political struggles that black people face. McDonald touched upon this when referring to a scene in which Queen and Slim are driving on an empty backroad while they witness prisoners performing penal labor in a field.
“We see as they’re going further into the South, and even as they are approaching freedom, that we’re also in this place. For a long time after slavery was abolished, it just got replaced by convict leasing. You see the chain gang and these vestiges of structural racism that are still very much alive and well,” McDonald said.
The film looks at the forms of oppression that are embedded and prevalent in society today. Specifically, the way it tackled police brutality hits home in light of the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and countless others in recent years as this narrative of racial profiling and brutality is as present off the screen as it was on.
Coincidentally, the screening took place on the eighth anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin. On Feb. 26, 2012, Martin, a 17-year-old African-American teen, was fatally shot in Florida as he was walking home from a convenience store. The case gained attention after the man who shot Martin claimed self-defense and was acquitted on a second-degree murder charge.
The panel discussion around the film’s events contextualized the events in society today. It reminded viewers that although the film has a fantasy aspect to it, remembrance and awareness are important to understand that African Americans continue to face similar challenges today.
“As a journalist who’s covered Michael Brown, the Zimmerman trial—and I’m from South Central Los Angeles—I grew up with a lot of this, so … the realism [in the film], to me, means something,” Miller concluded.