Queen & Slim is a mess of contradictions and repackaged Talented Tenth nonsense attempting to show us the versatility of the Exceptional Negro.
TW/CW: this article contains spoilers for the films, “Queen & Slim” and mentions of death, police violence, anti-sex work/er slurs, and racism
By Adrie Rose
I don’t know when it took off, but “Tweet like a Lena Waithe script” started trending on Black Twitter over the weekend. I’m not what one would call a film buff, but I did know that Waithe’s newest film Queen & Slim, a Melina Matsoukas directed project based on a story by James Frey and Waithe, was released on November 27. Based on early praise from notable Black celebs, I expected resounding praise and approval for the film. Touted as an urban, updated take on Bonnie and Clyde, Queen & Slim promised to offer a nuanced, thoughtful, and timely look at police brutality, the fraught dynamic between the police and Black communities, and the tense relationship between much of America and the “thin blue line.”
I’m no fan of Lena Waithe given her comments about lacking any queer representation on television in 2018, when The Bold Type, Claws, Brooklyn 99, The Fosters, and countless other shows were, and had been, featuring queer women and femmes of colour long before Master of None made it to air. And if I’m being honest, Waithe’s continued avoidance of responsibility regarding allegations of sexual assault and harassment levied against Jason Mitchell, give me pause. But, I try to make a habit of supporting Black creatives, especially the queer ones, whenever possible. Still, I wish I had kept my $12 and gone to Five Below for more fairy lights.
Screenshots of the script for Q&S surfaced online shortly after the films release. Particularly obnoxious highlights include:
“Slim and Queen drive through the bible belt. It’s a mix of beautiful landscapes and poverty.”
“Do you know how lucky you are to have been carried in a black woman’s womb? It’s a gift. Damn the Jews — y’all the chosen ones.”
“If she hadn’t been killed — there’s a strong chance she would been impregnated in another year or two. That child could’ve been another statistic or the second black president.”
“Uncle Earl is like Chicken George (if he wasn’t a slave).“
“He doesn’t know Queen very well but he can tell she has the spirit of Nat Turner wrestling inside of her.”
If I had the time and stomach for it, I could spend hours taking quotes from the script’s laughably insistent prose. If it was meant to be satire, I think I could understand or even accept it, in the same way that I accepted Sorry to Bother You ending with Black men turning into raging horse creatures. But Q&S is serious… theoretically. It’s a romantic film showing the magic of a first date and fast love. But it’s also a political film that tackles the absurdity of the notion that complying with police orders will keep you safe. And it’s also an analytical film that examines the often divided response our nation has to violence and violent sentiment directed at police in retaliation for their oppressive enforcement tactics. And then it’s a thought-provoking film that supposed to show Blackness in all its varied glory, turning the monolithic yet opposing representation of Black people on its head before tossing it out the window.
Maybe Waithe is just trying to do too much and lost the plot, literally and figuratively. I’ve never actually read a script of hers before, nor have I seen any of her previous work. I can’t speak to her creative intelligence or prowess and I can’t judge her past efforts. But I have no problem planting my flag and dying on the hill of “Queen & Slim is not good. It does too much and it does it poorly.” As a romantic thriller mash-up, Q&S is fine enough. The glaring problem with this film is the writing. Even without stage directions and writer-notes to draw from, as political and social commentary Q&S is just fucking terrible. One scene, in particular, has Queen receiving medical care for a gunshot wound from a woman living with Queen’s uncle, a pimp. The obvious narrative is that Goddess is a prostitute, making Queen, a Respectable Negro, uncomfortable with being touched or treated by her, despite Queen bleeding from an injury that could kill her. It’s only after Goddess reveals that she was a nursing student that Queen visibly relaxes. The notes from this scene conclude with “In [sic] another life she could’ve been a revolutionary, but in this one she occupies the fantasies of working class men who will never understand how complex she really is.”
I was instantly bored. This notion that sex workers are only valuable and useful if they’re something else is boring. It’s tired. Queen, the lawyer, can’t stand to be touched by a hooker living in her uncle’s home until said hooker qualifies her very existence, her audacity to make physical contact in trying to treat a gunshot wound, by offering proof of her expertise. If you were bleeding out from a gunshot wound, would you demand qualifications from someone before you allowed them to treat you? Or would you be grateful for the chance to live?
But this is exactly why Q&S is so bad. There’s nothing new or particularly enlightened about it or the hot takes it’s so unsubtly foisting on us. At the end of the film, Queen and Slim are betrayed by the character that most resembles the Black stereotype. The Black cop lets them go. The white couple, positively dripping white guilt while enjoying a quiet suburban existence, shelter the couple in a crawl space as SWAT storms through their home. The Black child, the picture of innocence, is gunned down after shooting a cop in emulation of his new hero. But this large Black man with his tattoos, cornrows, gold grill, and heavy use of Ebonics is the betrayer. He is the one that leads Queen and Slim to their deaths in the most ridiculous plot twist I’ve seen since the ending of Game of Thrones. Queen sheds her braids and embraces her natural hair as Slim shaves his unruly afro and the two fall deeply and madly in love. In a voice-over, Queen explains that she is looking for a man to lead her to the real her or some such drivel. Q&S is a mess of contradictions and repackaged Talented Tenth nonsense attempting to show us the versatility of the Exceptional Negro. He’s exceptional because he killed a cop (even though it was self-defence as he insists).
Unfortunately, the very idea of the Exceptional Negro is nothing but repackaged white supremacy that reinforces the very notion it seeks to dispel. Black people are varied. Some of us do world-changing, life-altering things that change the course of history forever. And some of us are Costco workers, perfectly content to stock shelves for decent pay and health insurance. Some of us are just hookers that may or may not have had medical training. Some of us are revolutionaries out to change the world. Any of these things are fine, on their own. I don’t have to qualify any part of my being by being an iconoclast, instantly recognisable and polarising. I don’t have to be anything but Black. And that’s more than enough.
Adrie, Sociology student, book hoarder, and mother to Oscar (5) and Misty (15). I believe in the power of the glitter accent nail, sex workers, and black people.