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“For Us and by Us”: What ‘Queen and Slim’ Gets Wrong About Black Storytelling

The excitement of seeing Lena Waithe’s stylish, unapologetically black film gave way to frustration: Why must black stories rely on trauma and hopelessness?

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I was excited to see Queen & Slim when it was released in theaters in November. It’s an unapologetically black story told by black creators. “For us and by us,” said director Melina Matsoukas (Insecure). Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe (Master of None, The Chi), who wrote the screenplay, told Essence that “not one single note by a white person was taken or given.” And the film was, at its core, very black. But its stylistic strengths did not enhance its story; the gorgeous cinematography, with sweeping images of Queen and Slim’s travels from Ohio, to New Orleans, to Florida, and Devonté Hynes’s exemplary score, resembled something I’d double-tap on Instagram more than the backdrop to an enriching plot.

We first meet Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) in an Ohio restaurant on a sour first date via Tinder. Queen slides into Slim’s DMs only because she doesn’t want to be alone after a rough day at work. She’s an ambitious defense attorney; he’s a God-fearing Costco worker. After their date, a traffic stop gone wrong results in Queen’s being injured and Slim’s shooting and killing a white police officer in self-defense. We spend the rest of the film riding backseat to a six-day tale of love on the run. The plot is Bonnie and Clyde, but aesthetically, think more Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run tour (Matsoukas also directed Beyoncé’s “Formation” music video). But Queen and Slim are not bank-robbing outlaws. They are forced to run because of the color of their skin. The only loot they are attempting to get away with is their freedom; their main crime is being born black.

Beyond the low-hanging symbolism, including the obvious callback to the Underground Railroad, the plot never scratches below the surface. I wanted Queen & Slim, and its characters, to amount to so much more. We do not learn the two protagonists’ real names until the very end. Race is the only identifier the audience needs to relate to their circumstances, because the viewer could give them any name, like a cruel game of Mad Libs. My name—or my boyfriend’s, my brother’s, fill in the blank—could have been read aloud by the newscaster announcing Queen and Slim’s fate at the end of the film. Queen and Slim could have been any of us, as if our names are important only after the fact. We need to #SayTheirNames while they’re living.

Waithe’s script and Matsoukas’s direction make us believe Queen and Slim can make it. As a viewer, you’re rooting for them, up until their very last breaths. It is then when you realize you’re rooting for all of us. You’re rooting for this story to turn out differently, and you’re disappointed when it doesn’t. The film’s creators were forcefully holding up a mirror to our pain but did not reveal anything in its reflection that we have not already seen so many times. There was no answer, no solution. “I’m done spending money to watch films where I leave it wondering why the world hates me for something I have no control over,” one Reddit user writes about Queen & Slim on a thread pining for positive black cinema. “It left me feeling depressed and traumatized. I am tired of seeing black bodies riddled with bullets.” In the final moments of the film, Queen and Slim’s Black Judas (portrayed by Bertrand E. Boyd II) drives them to an airport, where they’ve been promised two plane tickets to Cuba to find their freedom. The pilot waves them to the tarmac, but it’s a setup: Sirens blare as police cars barricade them in and officers demand their surrender. Queen and Slim die in a hail of bullets. I’m the first to admit that I can sometimes be a naive optimist, hence why I wanted our modern-day folk heroes to board that plane and escape to Cuba to continue their love story and begin a new legacy. I felt like we deserved that. “The ending of Queen & Slim is an artful wound, an elegant pile of bloodied bodies, with no medicine,” Shadow and Act’s Brooke C. Obie wrote. “It is stunning in its imagery, but it doesn’t heal.”

Queen and Slim share my sense of naiveté. They begin to believe they will outrun their fate. They began living, and settled in on the idea that maybe life is about the journey, not the destination. Queen even makes reference to Assata Shakur, a self-proclaimed “20th-century escaped slave” who found political asylum in Cuba in the mid-1980s. They take turns swaying in the breeze while hanging out of an old station wagon, the sun kissing their dark skin as they take a moment to smile. Slim pulls over to ride a horse simply because he’s never done it before. An all-black jazz night club becomes the scene for a risky slow dance. They lived every moment as if it was their last, and we believed them because we knew their fate.

The film has been praised for its portrayal of black love, but it has been heavily criticized for its trauma-infused script. In The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb called it a “meditation on a system of justice that treats innocent people as outlaws,” though he acknowledged the polarizing response to the film. “This is a film that stands as strong a chance of being hailed and lauded as it does of being denounced and picketed.” The latter response is a result of the film confusing representation with authenticity. It’s not enough to merely have black people on screen—we have to dive deeper and creatively challenge the stories that are being told. The black community can’t be reduced to these one-dimensional tragedies. Our blackness doesn’t always equal pain and hopelessness, so cinema, music, and pop culture that’s claimed to be “for us, by us” should reflect this too. When Ice Cube released “It Was a Good Day” in 1993, it was a departure from his other work, which focused on the harsh realities of life in early-’90s Compton. “I remember the homies didn’t want me to do it,” he explained to The Breakfast Club in 2014. “They was like ‘Man, what you talking about, man? You do it hard. What you talking about it was a good day?’ And I was like ‘Damn, I can’t have a good day, too?’ Let’s be real. We have good days too. And let’s talk about it.” It’s true, we do have good days. Black cinema shouldn’t turn away from the horrific things that are happening in our community and only flood Hollywood with comic book heroes like the stars of Black Panther and Watchmen, but we need to challenge storytelling to show our good days, our triumphs, and our wins too.

Our stories are vast, multidimensional and intricate, and worthy of being told. But how is as important. The post–Black Lives Matter storytelling arc is now a full-blown film genre (see The Hate U Give, Black and Blue, Blindspotting, and Detroit from the last three years alone). Waithe and Matsoukas’s “protest art” fits right in, purposefully. Cleveland was selected as Queen & Slim’s starting point, the same city where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed at a park in 2014. Rice’s death has become a deep root in the Black Lives Matter movement. These plots are based on the cruel reality that’s happening around us, but our actual lives have always mattered—before they become merely a T-shirt design or a mural—and they always will. “Why is death something we have to expect in all facets of our lives?” asked Wear Your Voice writer Clarkisha Kent to The Guardian, calling Queen & Slim “Black Lives Matter fan-fiction.” “We the people are more than our trauma, and we don’t have to see it over and over like it’s Groundhog’s Day to understand that it’s an issue. I feel like fiction should be an escape.”

Moonlight was a heartbreaking gay coming-of-age story, but it did leave viewers with a small ounce of hope. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman added a bit of humor but was no less weighty. If Beale Street Could Talk captivated hearts with Tish and Alonzo’s love story, only to have it ripped out with a reality check of our criminal justice system. Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, telling the story of a black man wrongfully imprisoned for killing a white man, will be released December 25 and appears to do more of the same. The familiar “trauma porn” images continue to drive the plot line that our blackness only equals pain, when the truth is, we are so much more. It’s time our cinema reflects that.

I left the theater after watching Queen & Slim feeling, yet again, that I was being reminded of my inevitable demise as a black person in America, or the demise of someone I love. I felt hopeless instead of inspired; deflated instead of uplifted; tired instead of woke.