‘Queen and Slim’ trades in Black Resistance for Black Martyrdom
Queen and Slim wants Black people to be immortal. To be comforted by the legacy we leave behind in our forced absences. But what if we just want to live?
Spoilers ahead. If you have not watched Queen and Slim, STOP reading now.
For the longest time, before college would allow me to form my own independent identity outside my Nigerian parents, I was raised up in the Christian tradition. And my Taurus sensibilities made it so that I was about 99 percent committed to its doctrine, even if a lot of it didn’t make sense to me.
Still. As someone who appreciates good lore, it interested me. And one of the things that interested me the most was its preoccupation with death. This preoccupation goes beyond base “heaven vs hell” binaries or even “fire and brimstone” sermons that invoke fear of God in the place of love. It is its positioning of strict morality and martyrdom as a precursor to a perfect afterlife—even if you experience a shitty life and an even shittier death.
And for all its meditations about death, the good book doesn’t sufficiently challenge this glorification of martyrdom and death until the New Testament, where world-famous martyr Jesus Christ finally expresses fear, indignation, and even resentment at having to die and become a two-dimensional mythologized, and embellished symbol for people he doesn’t know and most certainly will never meet.
And I felt this fear, indignation, and resentment when watching the final scenes of Queen and Slim.
Black people have an intimate relationship with death. This is not by choice. And this is not some by-product of living with unchecked privilege like a certain hexadecimal-coded group of people that just want to feel “alive”. This is merely the reality we live in—where various institutions on this planet would not draw breath if not for our existence and wish to kill us because our survival—and worse, our propagation—reminds them of this disgusting fact. Death follows us. Every child. Every teen. Every adult. And every elder. But calling it “following” is too kind. It stalks us. Passively waiting for us to give in and gleefully swallowing the nuance and interiority of our lives when the world pulls the trigger.
Which is what is vaguely disturbing about Queen and Slim, in retrospect. I’m sure QS is keenly aware of our predestined dance with death the moment the film starts rolling. But that awareness is not so clear as when we witness the pivotal scene of Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) killing an Ohio police officer in self-defense. From the moment we see him pull that trigger, we know:
Oh. That’s a dead nigga walking.
And yet, the film goes to great lengths to dispel this expectation and disarm us, the audience, long enough to believe for even a second that Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (who we find out are named Angela and Earnest—at the end of the film) are not, in fact, dead niggas walking. We follow them in what essentially could be a cute, Wattpad-approved road trip movie if not for its “realistic” stakes. Queen and Slim go dancing. Slim rides a white horse. Both of them take turns hanging out of an old station wagon and staring out at a large body of water—with the wind slapping against their dark and glistening Black faces. Because for a very small moment in time, impending death forces them to choose life. This is life and they are living.
But this thirst for life that seems to inform the undercurrent of the film soon gets traded in for something far more sinister: the deification of immortality.
We are first introduced to this concept when we meet Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston)—a young Black boy who couldn’t be more than, what, twelve or thirteen? Queen and Slim encounter him on their journey when their car breaks down and they bring it to his father’s shop to be repaired. His father does not care for these common niggas who couldn’t pipe down long enough for a white officer to give them a ticket and be on their way. But Junior regards them with fresh and wide eyes. As not only rebels but as accidental provocateurs that are taking an active shit on death every additional day they continue to draw breath and evade it.
This concept, that Black people have the choice to choose life even with death actively breathing down our necks, could be fairly powerful if left alone. Or even in an alternative version of the film where Junior internalizes it and decides to live his life to the fullest—regardless of what happens to Queen and Slim. But this does not happen. And the concept loses its immense potential and power when the film interprets Junior’s appreciation of defiance in the face of death as some sudden need for him to throw himself into its jaws, hoping it doesn’t bite, and expecting to be made “immortal” on the off chance that it does. Because the chance to live on as freely as you can apparently pales in comparison to the chance to live on in the digital afterlife. Junior assures Queen and Slim they will be okay, even if they die. Because their deaths, even more than living, will mean something. They become greater than themselves. And they will become symbols for those who come after.
And this is where the film starts to push the “immortal value” of Black lives over their actual lives. Junior goes to a protest with the explicit purpose of being harmed, or worse, dying. He then shoots a Black cop in the face and gets his wish. Suddenly, a space where we are usually forced to be brave, courageous, and relentless in order to advocate for our lives and demand that the state literally “stop killing us” is turned into “art”. It becomes a “tragic” and “beautiful” vehicle for existential angst that gets its cheap thrills by shooting “benevolent” cops. Because that’s what Black Lives Matter is all about right?
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And for what? To be thrown on a t-shirt or up on a wall and hashtagged to [a second] death?
The interesting paradox in all of this is that in the midst of all this talk of immortality and even legacy (the latter being brought up by Slim), the movie catches itself briefly, and Queen, in particular, makes it abundantly clear that she rejects immortality. That she wants to live. Not as a hashtag on Twitter. Or as the bookend of an already racist news cycle. Or as a permanent fixture in the names we recall and recite when we remember who and what the state has taken away from us.
Nah. She wants to live. Maybe with Slim. In Cuba. Where countless drinks, blazing sun rays, and endless dancing possibly await.
She presses forward based on the mere possibility of this and is fueled by the real-life example of Assata Shakur, which—you guessed it—inspires hope. Hope that the film dangles in front of us from the first frame and then slaps fire out of our mouths for believing in by the last frame. I have not yet unpacked what it means that she, a Black woman, is the only protagonist who audibly expressed disinterest and disgust at the idea of being mythologized upon death. But I do see the irony in her having said all that and then being the first to be senselessly gunned down while she loudly ponders the idea of legacy.
Queen and Slim wants Black people to be immortal. To be comforted by the legacy we leave behind in our forced absences. But what if Black people just want to live? What if Black people just want to be? What if some of us aren’t content with the thought of extending our lives in the collective digital afterlife with a hashtag or on a fucking t-shirt? What if hollow immortality, deification, and mythologization aren’t enough to assuage the putrid smell of state-sanctioned, premature death that seems to follow us everywhere—in real-life, in fiction, and in our dreams?
Jesus wanted to live. And so do I.
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