In Netflix’s See You Yesterday, a young girl successfully builds a time machine with her best friend. But before they fully understand the implications of their new power, they set in motion a series of events that lead to her brother’s death at the hands of police. As they try to undo their fatal mistake, they learn the hard way that there are variables they will never be able to control—resistance is futile when violence is the nasty birthright you have inherited by virtue of being black in America. You will never truly be safe.
The same idea sprung to mind after viewing the new film Queen & Slim. Directed by Melina Matsoukas and written by Lena Waithe, the movie stars Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya as the titular lovers forced to go on the run after a deadly encounter with a trigger-happy police officer. Despite its commercial framing as a classic outlaw narrative, Queen & Slim is simply a gorgeous reflection of the hope that can emerge amid the darkness of futility. The audience meets the couple in the middle of their first, tense date at a diner, and we follow along as their bickering becomes a fight for survival. Taut and effective, the film’s opening scenes set the stage for the political conflicts that will swirl around them as they try to escape a jurisdiction in which there will be no justice.
Waithe’s script is tense and electric, doling out momentary terrors at a steady and unending pace. But where it truly shines is in the deliberate spaces she makes for tenderness and intimacy. Over and over, Queen and Slim take time to experience new things that might bring them joy, lean into the surreality of their situation, and concede to the desperate nature of their quest. Whether it’s mounting a horse so a white man will be “forced to look up” or dancing in the shadows of a seedy juke joint, they snatch peace where they can find it, giving the audience a much-needed chance to hope.
The story is deftly handled by Matsoukas’s direction, and her visual style is clearly evident to anyone with even a passing familiarity with her work. Her music video for Beyoncé’s “Formation” is the text most obviously referenced, and it makes thematic appearances in the many scenes depicting the wide-open spaces of the southern gothic landscape and the poetic, atmospheric shots of black life.
But one of the true marvels of the film is Matsoukas’s ability to create a comprehensive vision of what it is to be black in the south. As Queen and Slim journey from Cleveland to New Orleans to Florida, they encounter black southerners who exist outside mythic plantation fantasies—they have created a new world all their own in the shadows they are permitted to inhabit without surveillance. That we see them so clearly as both background and foreground to the main couple’s journey is a feat.
These same people become the couple’s community as they flee across the country in hopes of finding freedom in Cuba. Each time they encounter other black people on their journey, they’re met with whispers, looks, and nods of both approval and distaste—the progenitors of a protest movement they didn’t mean to start. That benevolence shepherds them to safety time and time again, keeping them under the protection of a silent code of solidarity. But that connection means this new pseudo-community is touched by the ripple effects of their actions.
The most controversial way this happens is a protest set-piece in which a young black teen—the son of a mechanic the couple meets along the way—shoots a black officer in the head after he asks him to leave the scene so he won’t be arrested. It’s a desperate, upsetting scene weighted by the real-world context of the things that happen to black boys in the press, in prison, and in the immediate aftermath of what some may see as a justified escalation. The young man pulls a gun and you hold your breath because otherwise, the inevitability creeps in.
Some have read this scene as pro-police propaganda that inserts a sympathetic officer into a story where police are unambiguously the villains. But a cleaner interpretation is that these black cops are not narrative bugaboos, but an indication of the ways in which black officers—intensely aware of the current political climate—must wrestle with straddling a line that requires them to sand away their allegiances to keep the peace they’re tasked with maintaining. But as Jamelle Bouie writes in an essay about Watchmen’s galvanizing sixth episode “This Extraordinary Being,” “[a] society that brims with the unresolved pain and anguish of racial trauma can’t help producing a reaction.” It feels prescient that here the reaction is not simply a dead black police officer, but a young black teen who has achieved the immortality he so desperately craved in a way that all but ensures his demise.
Waithe’s questionable past comments and a troubling casting call that made the rounds over the weekend have rightfully made some wary of the film. But to put so much stock in Waithe alone is to ignore the work that Matsoukas did to elevate Waithe’s script into something that feels immediate and vital; pulsing with the frantic search for safety and true, enduring freedom.
This doesn’t mean the film is perfect—its polarizing ending lapses into cliché just shy of sticking the landing. Anyone sensitive to depictions of violence would be best served by seeing it with full command of a play/pause button. But what fails about those final scenes isn’t what happens, but how. Queen and Slim were always doomed. They were always going to die, and they were always destined to become symbols for the contradictory blend of hope and futility that characterizes being black in this country. This isn’t a fantasy and it was never intended to be. To expect a happy ending is to fundamentally misunderstand the impetus of the story.
At its heart, Queen & Slim is a road movie. But it’s also a beautifully rendered story about a love that blooms in hardship—in direct defiance of the forces that threaten it. Queen and Slim grow to know and love each other over the course of their deadly, six-day first date. The trauma they endure together binds them, yes, but they begin first as testy and reluctant co-conspirators, then friends, then lovers. Their interrupted story is but one of many that are cleaved apart by state violence every day—their violent end is the only possible response from a nation that always saw them as illegitimate citizens, to begin with. Their demise is fated, not earned.
But the hail of bullets that befell Slim as he stumbled towards the police, mourning and carrying the body of the woman he loved, betrayed the audience’s trust. It failed to give our heroes a dignified death or honor their lives with the care that we had just been shown they deserved. By bookending the story with police violence on this scale, Queen & Slim established its own critiques. This is not a movie about police brutality, but it is reasonable to read it that way. The initial police encounter served merely as a catalyst for the couple’s eventual bond, but the final one forcibly recentered white aggression and fear in a story that should have remained focused on their love. It’s a critical mistake, but it’s also one that’s forgivable given the achievements of the rest of the film.
How do you ensure that hope springs eternal? What does it take to bind two people so tightly that their love reverberates vividly, touching people they never knew? The haunting falsetto melody of Moses Sumney’s “Doomed” lilts over the film’s final sad scenes—“Am I vital/If my heart is idle?/Am I doomed?/Cradle me/So I can see/If I’m doomed.” These lines infect and inform every part of Queen & Slim. A brooding melancholy replaces the fleeting hope that was snatched away so viciously just moments before. As the couple passes over into mythic status, they become symbols for an idea bigger than themselves—resistance, defiance, community and best of all, a refusal to relinquish the possibility of hope.
So much of living as a black person in the United States can feel like an unending slog through trauma and despair only to be met with inevitable destruction. But with Queen & Slim, Matsoukas seems to argue that the destruction might just be worth it, if only for the fleeting moments of joy, love and genuine passion that bubble up along the way. Queen & Slim doesn’t have a happy ending, but it does have a true one. The only thing required of us in this failed American experiment is to continue to seek out people who will kiss all our scars and maybe even be our legacy.
Queen & Slim is currently in theaters.