Black Love As Revolution: A Take on Lena Waithe's Queen & Slim
Updated: Dec 9, 2019
A couple of weeks ago, I went to the theater. Seems simple enough, like a regular day, but it wasn’t a regular day for me. I was just coming off of a rough couple of weeks. I had a traumatic experience at work and I was fresh off of a breakup. For the past few weeks, I was going through the motions; work, home, couch. On weekends the order was bed, couch, bed. I knew this bout of self pity couldn’t stand. Luckily—almost like fate—prior to my hellish depressive weeks I had copped tickets to an advance screening of Queen & Slim. I needed an activity that made me feel like myself again and nothing makes me feel more comforted and grounded then a good movie.
As I entered the theater, I was not surprised that it was filled to the brim with black and brown folks of all walks of life; young black couples with arms slung across the shoulders of their partners, older black women stepping out for the evening, black professionals and creatives in stylish looks that I envied. We were all there in support of what was deemed as an unapologetically black film written, directed, and produced by Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas, two strong black female voices and visionaries in the field making their big-picture debut.
Watching a movie in a packed theater of black people is like no other experience. When Black Panther debuted, I knew I had to watch it on opening weekend to get the full experience; people yelling at the screen, laughing on cue, and picking up cultural references that were only made for us. The feeling of watching a film with black people feels like going to a cook-out, or an all-white party, or getting brunch in Harlem; we come as our best, we commune, and we have a good time.
I had many feelings after leaving the theater that night. I was hurt and uplifted. I had criticisms but overall I felt it was an important black story that needed to be told. Days later, I was having a conversation with a friend who had seen it too and we compared notes. She enjoyed it but had mentioned that on Twitter, some people were not pleased. She herself did not like the ending of the movie and mentioned that some thought it was a white savior film. My response to this, Queen & Slim is not a black revolutionary film in the way some want it to be but it’s still a revolutionary piece of art.
Queen & Slim is a movie that displays the diversity of the black experience with two central characters that deal with black love, unity, and legacy. The premise finds Queen and Slim on a Tinder date. They are an odd couple; Queen, played by newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith, is an attorney who defends clients on death row, an atheist, and unafraid to speak her mind. Slim, played by Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya,works at Costco, is family-oriented, god-fearing, and humble. On a regular night, you knew this odd couple would more than likely go their separate ways, but after experiencing a traffic stop that goes awry, they are bonded together on their run to freedom.
Prior to its release, Queen & Slim was helmed as the new Bonnie & Clyde which created great anticipation for black audiences. Thirty minutes into the movie we witness Slim shoot a cop in self-defense and as the scene unraveled, the theater erupted in cheers. We wanted to escape into a world where the cops die and not the unarmed black man and woman. We want to rewrite a world where Trayvon, Tamir, Mike, and Sandra live their lives, go off to school, find jobs, find love, and die from illness, old age, or even a car accident and not by the hands of police. The high of the opening sequence was later extinguished when the couple we were rooting for were ultimately killed on a tarmac mere minutes from boarding a plane that would carry them to freedom. How can we call this a revolutionary film when the ending was one that black people know all too well?
Queen & Slim is a boundless love story, a black love story, and in its authentic portrayal of black love, it cements itself as a black revolutionary film; for what is more revolutionary than black love? In their travels, Queen and Slim explore each other, their bristled interactions are softened as they reveal their wants, fears, and dreams that they know may one day go unobtained. They stop at a juke joint in Tennessee. Slim playfully asks if Queen would have gone on a second date with him. Queen, without hesitation, answers no but then curiously asks what they would do on their second date. Queen is agitated, they’ve stopped running and they were literally sitting ducks in the parking lot of a juke joint. But Slim had hit the pause button and asked them to go on a second date. We are drawn into Queen and Slim slow dancing; the deep blue and green lighting reflecting off of iridescent black skin. As if bedecked in jewels, they look like royalty swaying slowly to jazz tunes. The bartender informs Slim that she knows who they are, that they are safe there; safe to take a beat, to unfurl in the arms of their lover, to block out the demons of the world around them.
Black love and family have always been a threat to white supremacy. Slaves would marry but their marriages were never legally binding and their vows were never honored as black families were subject to separation; wife from husband and children from parents. The threat of separation alone would dissuade anybody from coming together and forming a family, nonetheless love has always prevailed. Black love is celebrated because it should have never been. This is why we have shows like Black Love on the OWN Network and why you’ll find over 5 million posts on Instagram under the hashtag #blacklove. In Queen & Slim, even as the world literally burned around them, life and love bloomed.
Black love isn’t only represented in the romance between Queen and Slim but also in the community of people who assisted them in their escape. Waithe and Matsouka created a modern day underground railroad as Queen and Slim escaped from home to home with the support of family and strangers. They were given grace from people who may not have agreed with their actions, but offered their help anyway.
Black love was also portrayed in the love of self, in the moments that Queen and Slim took to live without reservation and without fear. Queen’s motivation to run was to avoid becoming state property; she didn’t trust gambling her life and freedom in the hands of an unjust justice system. This is a system that black people contend with everyday not only in the form of law enforcement but inequalities in schools, housing, job opportunities, even simple interactions that become microaggressions. For black bodies, determining our own destiny is revolutionary. To laugh. To find joy, to love, to be master of your own soul—for black people—that is a rebel cry.
As I had mentioned before, I found myself in the theater watching Queen & Slim after having experienced my own traumatic event. A week prior, I had an encounter with police. I was on a field trip with my students when our bus was stopped at a routine check point. It was the night before Veteran’s Day and the president was in town so police around the city were out in droves. The first police officer who boarded our bus didn’t address myself and my colleague sitting in the front. He announced that the police were there to conduct a routine inspection and proceeded to make his way through the bus. My students were visibly scared and alarmed and I did what I could to calm them.
A second officer boarded the bus. Both officers were non-black. The second officer could have been Italian or Puerto Rican, I wasn’t sure. The second officer spoke to the driver, asking him who we were and where we were going; again not addressing the two women who were the obvious adults in charge. He turned to address my students asking, “Are there any bombs on this bus? Anyone trying to commit a terrorist attack?”
My students were on high alert at that point; very scared and very confused. I turned to the officer and I asked him politely to please not scare my students. The officer turned to me and it was as if he were looking right through me, as if I was a child causing a nuisance.
“We have to inspect the bus, it’s our job,” he said.
“That’s fine,” I replied. “Inspect the bus, but please be considerate of the fact that these are kids. You don’t have to scare them.”
“I can do whatever I want,” the officer spat back as he turned to leave the bus without so much as a goodnight offered in consolation.
It was a small exchange; no weapon was drawn, no one was in immediate danger, but this exchange had affected me. After dropping off my students I went for a walk and called my best friend crying. I thought of how the officer had the gall to respond to me in that way. How he had no concern or respect for me or the children that I was traveling with. I thought about all the cops who also felt like they could do whatever they wanted and in doing whatever they wanted resulted with a black person dead.
I marveled at how powerless I felt in the moment and in the moments after. I blamed myself for freezing; I should have gotten his badge number. I should have came back with a snarky remark like, “I wonder if your supervisor believes you can do whatever you want?” I wondered had my white colleague said something, would she have gotten the same response? I was jealous of how easily my colleague and the majority white students on the bus were able to walk away from the encounter unscathed. I skipped work the next day and cried. I hated myself because I couldn’t stop crying.
This is the toll of racism on black people. How a seemingly innocuous encounter with a police officer mentally derailed me. This is the mental yoke that binds us to our slave ancestors. To be black for me is never being at ease, never living freely, living in constant fear of judgement or violence. To be black also means to also take up space when you can, to laugh freely in the face of oppression, to celebrate variants of blackness whenever possible.
I spoke to my therapist after the incident and she said that my only responsibility moving forward was to live.
“That officer is out there not giving two shits about you,” she said. “He probably doesn’t even remember your face and here you are giving him so much power over you.”
My therapist was right. I had a responsibility, in the aftermath of trauma, to live. It was fitting that in an act of living, I would sit in a theater surrounded by black folk who were carrying their own trauma. We came together, we laughed at the jokes, we felt joy, we mourned the loss of these fictive but very real characters. To be in that theater was a salve on my wounded heart. Experiencing this movie together was healing and even healing can be revolutionary.
People wanted a movie where our world, our reality, doesn’t exist. What we got instead was a reminder to face our world head on, but never stop living, never stop healing, and never stop loving in the process.