Steamy sex and clashing protests. Is the overlapping of a sex scene and a protest scene halfway through Melina Matsoukas’s film Queen & Slim morally correct? Unimpressed reviewers don’t seem to think so. The connecting thread in critical pieces about the movie, some deeply engaging, is the view that juxtaposing these two particular scenes was crude, or clumsy, or confusing.
I disagree with the criticism. The collage of the two scenes is the perfect representation of the movie’s two central and crescendoing themes…
… (1) love and (2) injustice. The hunger for intimacy and the yearning for freedom.
It is a powerful pairing of the two things that make humans the most impassioned. What other emotion drives otherwise sane people to obsession than love? What other states of mind incite otherwise calm people to revolution than injustice?
That said, those two aren’t my favourite scenes either. My favourite scenes are: The banter on the couple’s first date because it feels both frustratingly and amusingly familiar; the conversation with the amazingly talented young actor, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, along a river so diasporic it could just as well be the banks of the River Niger or the Paraná; the scene where the couple ride on a white horse. White horses, as Wikipedia reminds me, are among other things symbolic of fairytales, and a fairytale is exactly what Queen and Slim escape to in that particular scene.
But the thing I haven’t stopped thinking about since I saw the movie is the character of “Blackness”. As a character in Queen & Slim, Blackness is a socio-history; a kind of embodiment of the many stories interwoven into the journeys of African descendants. Furthermore, it is a social and historical context that is international, intergenerational and interdependent.
Blackness is treated as a repository of a people’s philosophy, language and aesthetics that conveys collective attitudes to fundamental matters of life such as love, pleasure, joy, death, the natural world, solidarity, dignity, betrayal, and family. The conveying of black attitudes to family is, for instance, carefully portrayed in a scene at a Blues joint where, despite that everybody knows that the seemingly carefree couple, Queen and Slim, are fugitives, nobody bats an eyelid. Or, in a subsequent scene where a mechanic, who also happens to be the father of Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston pictured above) who will later take the life of a police officer, is cautious toward the couple. His caution expresses both the hardened distrust that enters the hearts of a forever persecuted people, but also a father’s intuitive love toward a son susceptible to following the steps of his new role models.
The family, and blackness, are represented with their warts, however, which is good. At no point of an otherwise mythic and dreamy film are we allowed to be lulled by utopian fantasies. The quotidian sexism rampant in black communities is bare – such as during a trip to the emergency when the injured man keeps talking about his hoes and bitches. Or, the uncle Earl character whom the audience is problematically intended to develop a soft spot for despite his obvious misogyny.
Also, Queen herself is a tough, rather emotionless woman but as the situation escalates, her and Slim’s roles reverse – she deploys a more typically feminine role asking Slim to tell her a story, for example, in order to sleep. Slim, in return, who initially is not macho at all, gradually slips into the role of a male protector.
Blackness in Queen & Slim conjures a history and a knowledge of black people, and it does so in a way that will resonate with black audiences everywhere. I was not surprised to see a post by director Melina Matsoukas on Instagram featuring the African continent, and the caption “We coming home”.
I welcome this intention to reinvigorate a sense of radical black internationalism. In Sensuous Knowledge, I write about how enslaved Africans in the US would bury their loved ones facing homeward,—toward Africa. Yet for enslaved Africans, “homeward would have been a noun, not an adverb. It would be a country, not an orientation. It would be the last place from which their journey to the diasporas began.”
I found myself thinking about this especially when Queen and Slim visit the cemetery where Queen’s mother is buried. In this scene, perhaps sensing her own looming death, Queen reaches out to a mother she had pushed away when she was still alive. The scene touched me for many reasons. It seemed symbolic of mother love and of a reaching out to Homeward; to seeking comfort in the fraught deep love the African continent harbours for all her daughters and sons.
Perhaps the mixed reviews of Queen & Slim ultimately reflect a dialogue about whether our grievances can be transformed into mythology and poetry in a time characterised––burdened, even––with demands of representational realism. Personally, I think it’s precisely in these times of stark politics that the mythic, ethereal, poetic, soulful and sensuous, are as urgent as the critical and analytical.
What did you think of the movie?