*Spoiler alert for the plot and ending of Queen & Slim. Please do not continue scrolling if you don’t want to read spoilers of the movie!*
Looking back, it seems inevitable that Queen and Slim would die in the end.
These are, after all, two Black people in Cleveland, Ohio, who took a white cop’s gun, killed him with it, and went on the run. The white cop had already shot Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) in the leg after aiming his gun at Slim’s (Daniel Kaluuya) head. It would seem that they were destined to be gunned down by police eventually. Perhaps the remaining two hours of the film (and the week on the run that they shared, according to the film’s timeline) should be viewed as a mercy.
In their time on the run, they take what director Melina Matsoukas calls a reverse route to freedom for the enslaved—from the cold of the north to the warmth of the south in Louisiana, Georgia and Florida. As the weather heats up, so does their relationship. The strangers bond over their shared fate and fall into beautiful love and trust with each other. They visit Queen’s mother’s grave one last time, Slim rides a horse for the first time, they make love in the front seat of their getaway car, they hang out of the passenger side window feeling as free as they’ll ever feel—all in anticipation of their inescapable demise.
On their journey, they gain the love and respect of the Black community nationwide which has—like the audience—watched the footage of them killing the cop in self-defense and is rooting for their survival. For one week, they are symbols of Black triumph over white oppression. But, they are Black in America; perhaps their future was always to be in chains and then the grave.
Maybe it was naive to be hopeful about the couple’s chances of survival. But this movie has been billed as for us, by us. Screenwriter Lena Waithe shared that she took zero notes from white people on this movie. She shared with Shadow And Act that the story by credit she shares with James (“so much for cancel culture”) Frey was simply for his contribution to the premise and nothing else. So, I stomached some of the more annoying, misogynistic and fatphobic moments meant for comic relief because so much of Waithe’s writing and Turner-Smith and Kaluuya’s performance of the writing felt so fresh and honest and vibrant. With the visionary Matsoukas at the helm in her feature debut and a soundtrack that epitomizes Blackness, I felt comfortable and safe enough to hope against hope.
Then came the emptiness, the feeling of being bamboozled, as police riddle Queen & Slim’s bodies with gunfire and they bleed out on the pavement, mere moments away from what could have been their glorious escape from this American hell. As their Black male Judas (Jackson, played by Bertrand E. Boyd II), is counting his stacks of reward money for turning them in, all I could think was, why did it have to end like this?
There’s always an argument in favor of “realism” when it comes to portraying brutality against Black people on screen. The “realism” defense was used recently when Angelica Ross’s character Candy was brutally murdered on Pose last season. This insistence on “realism” in Black art begs the question: who is this piece of art for? Just as Black trans women didn’t need Pose to tell them that their lives are in danger from violent transphobes, Black people don’t need a movie where we’re unarmed and violently gunned down by the state to tell us that we’re in danger of being framed and murdered by the police. We know.
So, what does it add to see that ending fictionalized on the big screen? Is there a shortage somewhere of these videos of cops killing Black people?
Beyond that, in the movie, Slim literally cites the very real escape of Assata Shakur to Cuba when Assata’s life was endangered by the state. Thank God she’s still with us; she lived to tell her own story in her movement-defining autobiography; she’s still inspiring generations of us; and she’s still building her own legacy while alive in Cuba today. There’s real-life precedent for the “realism” crowd to allow Queen & Slim to escape, to be free, to be well.
In Alice Walker’s brilliant introduction to Zora Neale Hurston’s long-shelved book Barracoon, she wrote this about Hurston (which I’ve come to call the Hurston-Walker Test, as I engage with Black art): “Those who love us never leave us alone with our grief. At the moment they show us our wound, they reveal they have the medicine.”
Barracoon is not an easy narrative, but it is a true one. Hurston tells the tragic, devastating story of Cudjo Lewis, “the last Black cargo,” of The Atlantic Slave Trade on the illegal slaver ship the Clotilda. Hurston broke Lewis open when she asked him questions that made him relive being kidnapped from his home in Togo, surviving the journey across The Atlantic in bondage, and living through slavery, the Civil War and Emancipation. But the balm that Hurston offered to Lewis was that his story would be told. Lewis believed that telling Hurston his story might help get word back to his family on the Continent, and they could know that he had survived; the torture and the remedy were all in one.
That is not the case here.
The ending of Queen & Slim is an artful wound, an elegant pile of bloodied bodies, with no medicine. It is stunning in its imagery, but it doesn’t heal.
It is of no comfort that Queen & Slim live on in the short immortality of printed silk-screen T-shirts and murals. It is of no comfort that the Black community of the Queen & Slim universe will #SayTheirNames, which, the audience learns after their deaths, are actually Angela and Earnest. These are just two more names to add to the ever-growing list of Black people murdered by police to store in our over-traumatized minds. We in real life already have too many names to say, too many legacies to remember. Whom does it serve to give us more names to hold?
The groundwork for this discomforting romanticizing of their execution and “legacy” is laid out earlier in the film. After spending a few hours with the couple, a young Black boy goes to a protest in their name and murders a Black cop (to balance out the murder of the white cop in the beginning? Who knows.) and is subsequently gunned down by police. Apparently, this was the boy’s plan all along, to murder a cop in the name of solidifying his own “legacy,” or some such nonsense that only exists in MAGA fan-fiction about what the Black Lives Matter movement is all about.
The cops are already presenting a real-life lie that Black people are a danger to them. That’s why our cellphones and wallets and the backs of our heads and the Black-hand side of our fingers look like weapons to them. It’s long been determined that Hillary Clinton’s “super predator” children were a white supremacist lie. So whom does this storyline about a Black child murdering a cop in the name of “legacy” serve when Aiyana Stanley-Jones wanted to live; Tamir Rice wanted to live; Mike Brown wanted to live?
This was not inevitable.
The first time I saw Jordan Peele’s Get Out at the Magic Johnson theater in Harlem, I was surrounded by anxious Black people. Collectively, we held our breath when the police lights began flashing on Chris’ (Kaluuya) face at the end of the movie. And when those lights proved to be a cavalry for Chris instead of an execution squad, together, we shouted, we cheered, we clapped, we cried. It was the most incredible community experience with complete strangers that I have ever been a part of. We were all on one accord in our immeasurable relief and Black joy. We’d won one. In Peele’s world, we got to live! We needed that moment. We deserved it. We still do. It pains me to think that, in another film where Kaluuya has mastered his craft, we could have had that moment again.
But Angela and Earnest were created to die—first to their humanity when they are projected into the Queen & Slim symbols of Black martyrdom, and then again when the police unload an unspeakable amount of bullets into their bodies. It’s no matter that Angela says quite forcefully that she does not want to die, she does not want to be immortal; she wants to live.
But since she is, inexplicably, the most physically victimized of the two in this film—being shot in the leg by the police officer in the original confrontation; dislocating her shoulder in a jump from a window; being murdered first with a bullet to the heart—it’s no wonder that what she wants for her life isn’t honored. Perhaps that’s the truth of being Black in America; we are born, we struggle, we die—too often unjustly and at the hands of our government. And we’re usually powerless to stop it.
But what about when we have the power?
If—even in our wildest fantasies, even when we hold the pen and the camera and the final say—we still can’t live to the end, it’s still deemed a better story if we die by the hands of police, then where is the medicine in that?
Without the medicine, Queen & Slim is just digging around in the wound.
Brooke C. Obie is the managing editor of Shadow And Act.
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