by Zuri Mabrey-Wakefield|
Zuri is a first-year
student at Barnard College
and lover of exploring pop culture tea
and takes. She is originally from
Chicago, IL and is happy to be living
in NYC and harnessing collective power
with other young black and brown writers
Whether or not you’ve seen the film, the release of Queen & Slim has created the type of cultural moment that’s hard to escape with even the most minimal engagement with the Internet. Nevertheless, for my reader who has missed the moment, Queen & Slim is the latest brainchild of Lena Waithe of Master of None, The Chi, and Met Gala outfit fame – at least, that’s the way she’s famous to me.
The film follows a black man, played by Daniel Kaluuya, and a black woman, played by Jodie Turner-Smith, on their journey to outrun the police and escape the country after Kaluuya’s character shoots and kills a police officer during a highly questionable traffic stop.
I went to see Queen & Slim with my mother two days after I arrived home for a lengthy break for the holidays which, in hindsight, was perhaps the best of circumstances. A couple of weeks before I flew home, I found myself sitting at a table in one of my college’s dining halls with an extended group of friends and friends of friends. At one point during casual conversation, someone was asked if they had seen Queen & Slim yet. She said “no,” an answer to which the person who originally asked the question promptly responded with some indignation. “What? Don’t you want to support ‘the community?’” She, the asker of the question, then made sure to mention that she would be seeing the movie for the second time later on that night. Now might be the time to mention that the company at the table included, exclusively, young black women. The moment came and went, but it stuck with me because it exemplified a phenomenon that we often observe and don’t talk about.
In many ways, I think that we expect the Lena Waithes of the world and their films to serve as full-service black storytellers. The films are expected to show up for us in every way possible and we, in turn, are expected to galvanize en masse and show up for the film in every way possible. So when I say that I saw Queen & Slim under the best circumstances, I mean I was insulated from that pressure that often turns the act of seeing a movie into an act of virtue signaling.
I was away from school and away from friends. I was with my mom, who often uses the phrase “conserving brain space” to describe how little she cares about what people think of her. She went to see Queen & Slim because she wanted to see Queen & Slim. Period. And I tagged along.
This insulation gave me the space to watch the movie on my own terms and to take a step back and think about what, for our purposes, is at the heart of the matter when thinking about Queen & Slim. I want to talk about the presentation of Jodie Turner-Smith’s beautiful, black body and what I like to call “the logistics of being slim.” The thing that I found the most impressive about the movie is the emotional depth and range. While in the theater, I laughed, cried, furrowed my brow, and did that all due to the bouts of joy, anger, confusion, and grief that I felt throughout the movie. I guess, then, it’s only appropriate that the two moments in the movie that best exemplify “the logistics of being slim” remain poignant and somber in tone while they also make me cackle every time I think about them.
One of the most compelling aspects of Queen & Slim is its rhythm and pace. The movie follows the protagonists as they escape Cleveland and head south with the aim of making it to Cuba, and their first stop is in New Orleans at the home of Turner-Smith’s character’s Uncle Earl, which also serves as the setting of the first moment that exemplifies “the logistics of being slim.” After a police officer arrives at Uncle Earl’s home in the middle of the night, Kaluuya and Turner-Smith’s characters make a quick escape and she grabs a dress that belongs to one of Uncle Earl’s “baby dolls” (another phrase coined by my mother) and easily slips into it. Dear reader, when I say the thought of slipping into a stranger’s dress and having it fit me, having it hug me in all the right places as that dress did to Jodie Turner-Smith, makes me cackle, I mean CACKLE. For anyone that has a stomach, a butt, hips, and meaty arms as I do, we know that wearing clothes and having clothes that “fit” is often a game of adjustments, of tightening things, loosening things, tucking things in, and pulling things in. Such adjustments with such frequency know no place in “the logistics of being slim.”
This highly specified set of logistics is also exemplified during the intense moments in which Kaluuya and Tuner-Smith’s characters have sex in the front seat of the car that they are driving down south from Uncle Earl’s house. Again, the idea of slipping into an intimate sexual encounter without a moment’s thought given to disrobing and moving around in a car is enough to make me laugh out loud. The management and maneuvering required to depict sex between two bigger, thicker people in that tiny front seat that was just as powerful and loving went completely untouched. Queen & Slim is a movie marked by struggle and made by filmmakers who chose to explore the knitty-gritty of what it looks like to be young, black, on the run, in love, and in community. Unfortunately, this nuanced exploration of struggle seems to reach its limit when it comes to any sort of meaningful engagement with Tuner-Smith’s body and physicality. “The logistics of being slim” is the ease that comes with navigating the world while slender. And this was used as a mechanism to avoid the depiction of the very real discussions and adjustments that we know come with navigating this world in a bigger body. What might it look like and feel like to watch movies that really engage with “the logistics of being anything other than slim?” What might Queen & Slim have looked like with a fat Queen? Some food for thought.
All in all, the film was good. Like really, really good. And I don’t mean “good” in the way that critics or mysterious voters for fancy awards mean “good.” I don’t even mean “good” in the way that more serious film buffs mean “good,” in that more technical way. There is so much that is beautifully done in Queen & Slim, and there are some things that are not as beautifully done. I’m not referring to any of those things when I write that the film was “good.” Instead, I’m defining “good” in the way that it worked out my brain and invited me to think about and reflect on the presentation of another black, female body. This definition of “good” speaks to the heart of what unplug magazine and this column (fingers crossed) are all about. We deserve a space for these “good” things like Queen & Slim and the thoughtful conversations that they produce, don’t we? We do.