How ‘Queen & Slim’ Mistreats Fat Black Folks
The Queen & Slim script reveals that Waithe has held these views about fat Black people deeply and for a long time.
This essay contains spoilers for Queen & Slim. Reader’s discretion is advised.
In recent years, there have been many television shows and movies created by Black screenwriters, producers, and film directors with the intent to translate the beauty of Blackness onto screens in ways we had not otherwise seen while telling stories that have long gone unheard, ignored, or simply unapproached. Most notably: Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Queen Sugar, and When They See Us; Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us; Issa Rae’s Insecure; Donald Glover’s Atlanta; and more recently, Tarell McCraney’s David Makes Man. Each of these films and shows are a masterclass in cinematography. In other words, they each create outstanding visuals.
Alongside these now-household names is Lena Waithe, part-time writer and producer of television series, The Chi, and her first and latest film, Queen & Slim. Waithe, along with cinematographer Tat Radclife, and director, Melina Matsoukas—best known for her work on Insecure and Beyoncé’s Formation music video—each did an incredible job with making sure that the production of the film itself, and how it would translate on screen, was perfect. The writing of the screenplay, all of which is credited to Lena Waithe, was sufficient for the most part. And the plot—by which I mean the events that moved the film from point A to point B, and not necessarily the story itself—was also adequate.
The Queered, alterous intimacy that can be read onto moments between Queen and Goddess—moments when Goddess took down Queen’s braids to cut her hair, or when she stared up at Queen to tell her how much she enjoys Uncle Earl’s kisses on the forehead—gave me something to hold on to. Though I imagine it was not done intentionally, this seemed to be a beautiful attempt at displaying a homosocial haptic experience; one in which touch and care never meant romance and sex, but were still always about Love and honor.
These were all of the beautiful things about the film.
There are many critiques to be made about why the writing and story weren’t nearly as stellar as the production of the film itself, but I want to turn my focus elsewhere; to a part of the film that I imagine most critics will overlook.
While Waithe’s film joins the ranks of the aforementioned heavy hitters with regards to the cinematography, it also joins them in being Black screenplays that write of a safe haven where Black people exist, but none—or very few—are fat. And the one or two fat people that do exist are intended only to be the comedic relief in an otherwise heavy experience; the carriers and burden bearers of caskets thin people place themselves in; no more than a conversation about our labor and how we can provide the world with it, but never what the world can provide us with.
In the film, the word “fat” was mentioned only four times, but the harm this film does to fat people extends far beyond the use of that word in a derogatory sense.
A little fat Black boy is hand-picked out of a crowd of maybe five Black boys by Queen and Slim to order their food—from a fast food joint named Chubbies, no less—so that they can avoid being recognized by cameras and people who may have seen their faces plastered all over the news. He obliges. After they finish eating, just before they get into the car, the little boy returns to the vehicle—this time with a video of the murder, which has been uploaded to social media—asking if they are the people in the video. After pushing the boy away, Slim gets into the driver’s side of the pickup truck they stole and, just as he pulls off, hits the little boy’s father.
Queen and Slim both get out of the truck to check on the wounded man. After a brief dialogue, the father makes it clear that his knee is injured. The boy cries, “You broke my daddy leg!” To which his father replies, “Stop cryin’ like a lil bitch!” After they exchange a few more words, the nameless father tells the nameless child that he will “call [him] whatever [he] wants” because he “made [his] fat ass.”
After Slim decides they should take the father to the hospital, each of them help him off the ground and over to the truck. The little boy begins to climb in and just before his body reaches the seat, his father pushes him and says, “Getcho fat ass in there!” These are the first two times the film ever uses the word “fat.” However, as previously stated, the anti-fatness in the film does not start with the derogatory use of fat; it starts, in this specific scene, with choosing to ask the little fat Black boy to labor on their behalf with the implied assumption that he wanted food—not that he needed food, as fat people, especially fat children, are never allowed the feeling of needing to eat—or that his parents hadn’t given him money to pay for his own food.
In an unverified copy of the script, just like in the movie, the little boy is never asked his name. Different from the film, however, because he “has a lot of meat on his bones,” Queen and Slim name him “Chubby” in the script. Similarly, despite being fat and nameless in the film, Chubby’s father is labeled as “Tall Lanky Black Man” and is given an opportunity to share his name in the unverified script. Nevertheless, what does not change is the abuse Chubby is forced to endure—both by his father and Queen and Slim. This is where the anti-fatness continues.
Daring to cite the unverified script as a legitimate part of the piecing together of this film, what we find is that Chubby is never really thought of as more than a stray dog. Instead of asking him his name, Queen and Slim name him themselves—based solely off of his fatness. In a nonliteral sense, they ask of him to lay down his whole being on their behalf, leaving him with only his fatness. This, to them, seems to make him always already reducible to equerry or attendant. In this same way, according to this script, Chubby’s father would be a thin man who feels he has the right and authority to abuse his son for his weight simply because he is his son. Irrespective of Chubby’s continued defending of his father, his fatness makes him reducible to a punching bag undeserving of his beinghood.
Be that as it may, in the film, the father is fat, and not “Lanky,” and is never given a name. In fact, on IMDb, he is simply labeled as “Large Black Man”. Neither the father nor the son are asked their names. Instead, they are tasked with lightening the load for the audience; to quiet their fear, even if just for a moment. Their names did not matter because their being did not matter. What mattered was that their fatness be put on display for the necessary comedic relief in a film that is only interested in making thin people The Movement and fat people their caretakers along the way. What mattered was that Lena needed to write a fat Black father as abusive; a trope fat Black men can never escape in the [Black] film canon. This is why, despite the fact that he did not matter in the film as his fat self as he did in the script as his thin self, the father remained verbally abusive towards his son. Because the abuse of fat Black children is always peddled as something they deserve. Any kid who “allows” themselves to become fat deserve all types of abuse, and that abuse deserves to be laughed at in spite of how painful it is for the child—at least, that seems to be the logic here.
Lena is no stranger to writing anti-fat narratives about/towards fat Black children, though. In her series, The Chi, there is a little fat Black girl named Maisha who has a big crush on her middle school classmate, Kevin. Kevin is a thin Black boy who had no interest in Maisha, romantically or platonically. Instead of initially having their characters build a friendship or part ways, the show has her stalk and harass Kevin, physically harm him, and force him to accept her kisses. I like to call this the Nikki Parker Effect.
Writers have long made fat Black women and girls predators, so desperate for attention that they become sexually abusive, instead of writing characters who overcome their own anti-fat biases and find the beauty in fat Black people. Maisha is but an additional name to a longstanding list of fat Black women and girls subjected to this trope. And while Waithe is not the only writer for the show as she is for the film, it is produced and partly written by her, which means she does have the power to veto this type of harmful writing.
The Queen & Slim script reveals that Waithe has held these views about fat Black people deeply and for a long time. Not only did she write the son and father to play tropes of fat Black men and boys, but also the mechanic who works on Queen and Slim’s car later in the film. The script calls him “Plump Black Man” and, much like the other fat characters in the film, he holds no significance and adds no substance to the film aside from the trauma of losing his son—and we never even get to see him mourn this loss.
Recommended: FAT PEOPLE MUST BECOME A PRIORITY TO THE LEFT
Before the film arrives at its third and fourth time saying the actual word “fat,” there is a moment in between in which Queen and Slim stop to listen to a live band, dance, and grab drinks. As Slim approaches the bar, the bartender—a fat Black woman—recognizes his face. He tenses up out of fear, but she offers a comforting smile and says, “Don’t worry, ya safe here.” I struggled with this. Black people have always taken care of one another. We have always had to. That said, this film is supposed to be about a movement, and what organizing in a movement has taught me is that community requires not just shared space, but mutual consent to accountability, agreed-upon accountability measures, and familiarity. They shared none of the three. Our shared Blackness is not nearly enough for us to all be “in community” with one another. Yet, fat Black people are always asked to endanger ourselves for the sake of everyone else under the guise of “community.”
I am not suggesting that she should have called the police on him. I am a staunch abolitionist and thus I would never suggest the police are called on anyone, especially not Black people. However, what I am saying is that fat Black people should not be forced to be safehouses for thin people with no guaranteed safety measures set in place for us. Did he discuss an escape route with her to guarantee that she and [what I assume is] her bar are safe should the police find them there? Did they discuss how they would keep the attendees safe if a shootout ensued between the police and Queen and Slim? Or what accountability would look like for him and Queen should a customer take issue with them being there?
As impractical as a lot of this may sound, what is worse is writing a fat Black woman character as someone who wants to be a caretaker without questioning who will care for her. That is not community, and what is actually impractical is believing that it is.
Before it is all said and done, the film uses “fat” twice more. This time discussing Luther Vandross. In the passenger seat, Slim looks over at Queen and asks, “Skinny Luther or Fat Luther?” They continue from there, having an entire discourse about which version of Luther was a better vocalist—not based on technique, skill, or anything musical, but based entirely on his weight. This would not strike me as anti-fat in most cases, but in a film that chose to only ever use the word “fat” as a derogatory descriptor, this didn’t feel safe at all.
I left the theater feeling that, yet again, fat Black people did not belong in the new safe haven these writers envision themselves creating for Black people. We are safe bodies for thin people to dump on, but are never taken to the safehouse with them; things capable only of offering emotional support; mammies whose bosoms don’t need a break with minds that only ever exist to teach; holes meant only to provide relief. We are only ever Fat Albert, Nikki Parker, or Big Mama—comedian or predator or caretaker.
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