She’s an attorney who’s decided to go on a Tinder date, mainly as a diversion from thinking about her failure to get a client off death row. He’s a Costco employee and devout churchgoer who’s hoping to get lucky with this beautiful stranger—but the chemistry isn’t there. Driving home, the pair’s ordinary night takes a momentous turn when they’re stopped by a policeman for a minor infraction. The cop is needlessly confrontational, the woman is shot in the leg when she pulls out her cell phone, a scuffle ensues, and the patrolman receives a fatal bullet wound.
Those are the opening minutes of Queen & Slim, the highly topical debut feature for both director Melina Matsoukas, who’s helmed iconic music videos and episodes of the acclaimed TV comedy series “Insecure” and “Master of None,” and screenwriter Lena Waithe, the first black woman to win a Primetime Emmy for writing for a comedy series, for the autobiographical “Thanksgiving” episode of “Master of None,” which Matsoukas directed. The Universal Pictures release opens wide on November 27.
The fact that the unnamed (until the closing moments) Queen and Slim are black and the cop is white plays very much into their fateful choice to flee the scene of the traffic stop and go on the run. “People are on two different sides” about that decision, Matsoukas observes. “And I think what becomes the determining factor is race. I think as a black woman who lives that life, you understand the threat that law enforcement as an institution is. … She knew in that moment that had they stayed, they’d be killed, and that’s just the reality of being a black person living in this country.”
Once Queen and Slim take to the road, the film becomes an episodic journey filled with unpredictable encounters, as the dashcam recording of the incident goes viral and they are celebrated as folk heroes within the black community. Queen’s sleazy uncle calls them “the black Bonnie and Clyde,” but a more suitable movie reference would be feminist renegades Thelma and Louise. “These people are very much not criminals,” Matsoukas declares. “They are two people who have a shared experience who were forced into the intimacy of this car and fall in love against the backdrop of this racist society that they live in. So it’s very much more Thelma and Louise. Lena has always talked about the parallels between Queen & Slim and Thelma & Louise. Their struggle is obviously about being a woman and [dealing with] abuse, and there’s the friendship and intimacy those two women are able to develop on the road. [Both films are] very much a love story.”
Matsoukas notes, “One of the things that attracted me to this script is that it straddles the line between different genres. It starts off somewhat as a rom-com, then it becomes very much a horror film for these two characters, and then it’s a dramatic love story that also borderlines on this fantasy between them. It’s kind of a reverse slave-escape odyssey, where they travel south instead of north. And they learn so much about each person that they encounter and so much from each other.”
Calling Waithe her “work soul sister,” Matsoukas says, “Our collaboration is like no other that I’ve experienced, and I’m just honored to be on this journey with her.” While they were working on the groundbreaking “Thanksgiving,” Waithe told her about the feature script she was writing and her determination to have Matsoukas direct it. “And I was like, ‘Maybe. Send me the script when you’ve finished.’ I try not to allow personal relationships to dictate my work—whatever I choose to work on really comes from my passion for the foundation, and that is the script. She finished it, and a few months later I read it and I was inspired, I knew that I had to tell this story. I knew it was necessary for me and it was the first feature [story] that I wanted to tell. It definitely fell in line with a lot of elements that are important to me as a filmmaker—it’s provocative and it’s political and it’s saying something, but it’s also at the same time entertaining. It has a lot of commercial appeal where it can be broad and independent at the same time.”
Even before Matsoukas got a look, Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya had read the script. “Lena really wanted to cast him and I was not so sure. I had someone else in mind, and I only knew him from Get Out, and I didn’t think that his character in Get Out was who Slim was. So I didn’t see it at first. It’s just a testament to his talent—he’s our Paul Robeson, he’s our Denzel Washington, he’s tremendous. The person he is in Get Out is obviously very different than Slim and I’m sure very different than any other role he will play in his career. We met for what was supposed to be a five-minute coffee and it turned into a five-hour-long conversation about work and life and film and our experiences navigating this world as black people and how important it was for him to be able to play this role. And by the end of that conversation, I offered him the film. And then I went back to Lena and said, I hope you still want him.”
Cast opposite Kaluuya is a dynamic newcomer, Jodie Turner-Smith. “Lena and I both wanted to utilize this opportunity as a platform to introduce a new black actress, because we don’t necessarily get those opportunities often. But it’s quite the challenge to find somebody not as experienced who can stand up against Daniel. Kudos to our amazing casting director, Carmen Cuba, because Jodie was in her first round. I saw Jodie on a commercial maybe seven years ago. I knew her, but at the time she was only modeling and I didn’t realize how much she had been working on her craft as an actress, and she was incredible in her tapes. So we brought her in to test against Daniel and she held her own—she challenged him and they elevated each other’s performance. Other people shrank under his talent and his confidence, and she did the opposite—she came in and he blushed, and that’s all we needed from Queen. Queen comes in and she’s a really strong, powerful woman who’s also disappointed in this date. And now we have to make Daniel Kaluuya not attractive, which is quite a challenge. But, yeah, she’s upset about it. And we knew in that first test that there was nobody else to play our Queen.”
The movie’s Queen needed to be imposing: She’s the one who takes charge after that deadly confrontation. “We wanted her to start off like a Malcolm X and him like a Martin Luther King. And by the end of it they would kind of switch roles and learn from each other. They’re two very different types of black people—we’re not a monolithic group. Although we’re connected, we’re all very different. She has seen the system fail her and her clients, so she comes in with this armor where she’s not very open. And by the end, she’s completely naked to this man and very vulnerable and has learned so much about taking risks and loving and it being OK to follow and not always having to lead.”
Queen & Slim was financed by Brad Weston and Pam Abdy’s production company Makeready, which has a distribution deal with Universal. “It’s great because Lena and I both have final cut on it, and they allowed us the creative freedom to tell a story through a black lens, through our own lens that doesn’t have any filter,” Matsoukas notes. “But then it also has the push of a major studio, which I think is really important and kind of the best of both worlds.”
Matsoukas earned their trust in part because she’s become something of a legend in the music video world. She’s directed videos for an incredible gallery of music stars, including Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, Katy Perry, Kylie Minogue, Snoop Dogg, Christina Aguilera, Solange, Ne-Yo, and Robin Thicke. She’s also one of Beyoncé’s go-to directors, having helmed nine of her music videos, including the striking, controversial “Formation.”
“I think my background in videos was an incredible education for this moment,” she reflects. “I was able to be experimental for many years in terms of the types of work that I did, and it really honed my skills as a filmmaker and informed my choices. It’s incredibly challenging doing a film—I’m not used to working on something for a year. I moved to New Orleans to start prepping in October, so it was a full year of my life. But it’s incredible to be able to tell such a three-dimensional story and be able to infuse so much of myself into each frame and to create a complete narrative. Obviously I utilized my background in videos to come here, but it feels like a very natural progression for me as a filmmaker to create my first film.”
Asked about her filmmaking heroes as she moves into her feature career, Matsoukas names Julie Dash (“an incredible influence on my eye and my interest in film”), Mira Nair, Barry Jenkins, Pedro Almodóvar, Spike Lee, Spike Jones, and Wes Anderson. “This list could go on and on. But I’m a fan of the power of cinema and also of all the people who give voice to the voiceless and create stories that aren’t usually told.”
That aim and aesthetic surely apply to Matsoukas’s feature debut. “I hope audiences come away with an education, that they feel like they learned more about the black experience, that they learned to humanize these characters and really were able to experience love with them.”