The new film Queen & Slim marks two debuts: It is the first film to be written by Master of None and The Chi actor and writer Lena Waithe, while also marking Melina Matsoukas’s debut feature as director. The visionary behind Beyoncé’s Formation music video, Matsoukas has a history with Waithe: She directed the critically lauded Thanksgiving episode of Master of None, which went on to win Waithe an Emmy – the first award for a black woman in the comedy writing category ever.
Queen & Slim starts with a lacklustre date between Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith), which quickly escalates after the pair is pulled over by a police officer whom Slim shoots in self-defence. Ahead of the film’s release this week, The Globe and Mail sat down with Matsoukas and Waithe in Toronto for an in-depth discussion of black language on screen, the power of the black gaze in filmmaking and what it means to create collaborative art that speaks to the reality of being black in America.
I know you’ve both worked together in the past – can you tell me what draws you both to continue to collaborate?
Matsoukas: I tend to like works that are by writer-directors and I am very much not a writer, and Lena will tell you herself that she is not a director. To find someone who can write in your tongue, who can translate your values onto the page, that brings such poetry to their work every time, that’s able to straddle the lines between genres and be able to create something political, but at the same time, entertaining and commercial … that’s who I am as an artist. If I had a pen, if I had that talent, it would be this woman.
Waithe: I don’t think I could be the director that Melina is. She’s a combination of so many things – even racially, the fact that she’s black, she’s Greek, she’s Cuban. All of those things make her such a specific storyteller. What else I love about Melina is that she can be at the hood party and vibe, but she can also be in the front row at Gucci in Milan and know more about the designs and influences that are coming down the runway than half of the people in the front row. I don’t have that gift, although I’m gifted in my own way. I’ve seen All About Eve more times than anyone can imagine and also can obsess over My Best Friend’s Wedding and Love Jones and then watch Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. all in the same day and get the same joy and fulfillment from those works. I think that’s the reason why my voice is so weird and confuses people sometimes because I study Sorkin, Spike Lee, Spike Jonze, and that makes me a little different than a person who only has black influences.
Matsoukas: I think that speaks directly to the black experience, right? We are not a monolithic group; we are multicultural. We are all connected by blackness, our roots, slavery and very much Africa, and that translates in different ways depending on where people landed. But we’re all connected and this film speaks to the African diaspora and all of the ways in which we see.
Waithe: Melina and I always say to each other that it feels like we shared a womb, you know? We feel like family, and that’s part of the reason that I think we bonded so quickly. The “Thanksgiving” episode [of Master of None], which a lot of people gravitated toward, was a moment that was so eye-opening. The way people reacted to it was like, “Whoa, what did we do here?”
Matsoukas: Taking that episode and being able to work with this story that I had never seen on television before, a black lesbian mom coming out to her mom. A black girl growing up in New York? I knew that part, that part was me. So I could see myself in parts of her story, even if it wasn’t mine, and that’s how I feel about all of the characters that she writes. And it’s the same thing with Queen & Slim; Queen & Slim is all of us.
Waithe: While I was writing the film, I just knew that Melina had to direct it; that’s why I brought it up to her while we were filming “Thanksgiving,” because I wasn’t done writing the script yet. I always set a high bar for myself when I’m writing anyways, but it made me think, “If you want this to be Melina’s first movie, you can’t half step it. You have to go hard.” That was another thing I had on my mind, too, to be vulnerable knowing that she would be able to take my trauma – and hers – and make something beautiful out of it.
That trust is such an important part of doing any sort of collective work, especially with a film such as Queen & Slim. This film has a black gaze that draws you in as a black audience member in a way that relies on both recognition of language and trust.
Waithe: We have a broken English, too. That’s what I try to tell people all of the time. I write in the broken English, I love that broken English. It’s a mix of city living, southern living, slavery.
There’s no translation for it, it just is.
Waithe: Although we’ve been very blessed with the praise given to the film, we’ve also been seeing some of that anger and frustration on the part of white critics in terms of translation. It’s so interesting to see how, for some people, equality feels like oppression. I keep telling Melina, if black critics like the film, then we have done our job.
Matsoukas: Because they speak our language.
That “for us, by us” ethos.
Waithe: And oftentimes, we see these critics react to films like Get Out or Moonlight with this same uncomfortable confusion, but meanwhile, we [black people] have been doing this forever.
Matsoukas: We’ve been speaking their language our whole lives! I have been educated in white cinema and white Hollywood is the history of cinema.
Waithe: Even Woody Allen, he speaks a specific language. So why can’t we have our own language?
Violence in the film is framed both narratively and symbolically in a specific way, maybe as a part of this language, or at least specific to yours. What was your thought process or intent behind depicting race-based violence in a story made specifically for black audiences?
Matsoukas: I wanted to tell a story that was authentic, honest and true. All of my directorial choices are based in authenticity; I wanted it to feel real – I didn’t want to half step it, you know? I studied the Sandra Bland tapes, the Eric Garner tapes, Tamir Rice; I studied the truth of those so that every look, every word, every intent, every action in this film was based in history. You can literally see history replaying itself on screen. I also wanted to show the effects of systemic racism within our culture, especially within our culture of law enforcement. All of the events in the film are events that trickle down from these structures and become translated in that way. For me, it was about being honest.
Waithe: Being black is beautiful, but it’s also traumatizing. When I see a news story about a black person being killed by a police officer, it’s not just a news story for me. It’s very traumatic. As an artist, I want to reflect the times in which we live, but I also want to switch up the narrative. For Queen & Slim in particular, I felt the need to change up the narrative. When people say they are jarred by the child in the film protesting, I want to ask, “Were you jarred by Tamir Rice?” All I’m doing is swapping the narrative. It’s interesting because, in screenings of the film, the scene where the first cop is killed is often met with applause, but the second time a cop is killed on screen, people feel unsettled, they feel jarred. And that was purposeful. All cops aren’t the same. All black folks aren’t the same.
Matsoukas: With that also, once you put on that uniform, you’re responsible for the sins of your colleagues. You’re not black or white, you’re blue.
There is a clear feeling realized throughout the film that we shouldn’t be sure who can or cannot trust, even if it’s a person who might look like you. Our very lived preconceptions are flipped in certain scenes.
Waithe: What I’m trying to do with my writing is underscore that every single person is a human being. One thing that people might miss is that there is a split-second shot of the first cop and his family on the dash of his car, and that’s so you notice that he’s a human. He’s a human having a bad day at work; he thought he would find something on them and when he doesn’t, he’s almost embarrassed. I’m playing with human behaviour. We can politicize it all we want because our skin is politicized. It becomes political the moment you cast two black leads, you know what I mean?
There’s a scene early on in the film, when Slim gets out of the car at the request of the officer and turns to give Queen a look that speaks volumes; that look is almost a movie in itself. How do you feel about that aspect or the boundaries between acting out black trauma and the possibility of reliving it as black actor, writer, or director?
Matsoukas: Realizing that feeling was important for me, and for Daniel it was as well – he related so much to Slim’s experience of being a black man.
Waithe: He’s had some run-ins with police that were...not kind.
Matsoukas: I have as well. I wanted to recreate that feeling for our audience of what it’s like to be pulled over and to see that blue light flashing behind you; that feeling you have when you know that you might not make it out of that situation and your life could change in a split second. I wanted to try to bring in that trauma onto the screen so that everyone could relate to it and bring empathy to us as a people. It’s important for us to create art that reflects the times and that reflects the world in which we live in.
Did you find the process of filming healing or cathartic at all?
Matsoukas: I don’t think so. For me it was more traumatizing. I put all of myself into those scenes and it was hard to walk away from that in the same way, to even feel like there was hope. But I did find it sort of therapeutic in our resilience, in the resilience of Queen and Slim.
Waithe: For me, when I think of the movies that influenced, not just me, but a lot of people: Boyz n the Hood, Do The Right Thing, Menace II Society…there are things in these films that show us who we are, who we were, and that show us a reality. These questions of do we or do we not re-live certain things? I’m from Chicago, so I’m well-versed in the Emmett Till story, and the thing that still shakes me, and shakes all of us, is the fact that his mother said there would be an open casket.
Matsoukas: Let the world see him.
Waithe: Let us look at it. She forced America to look at her son and I’m very inspired by her. I think that she is a revolutionary; her son unfortunately had to become a sacrificial lamb in order for our country to wake up. And that’s the thing for me: it’s important to not shy away from who we are. If we don’t hold up a mirror I don’t know if we’ll ever really change.
Queen & Slim is in theatres now
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