Joining a legacy of films, such as Set It Off and Thelma & Louise, Queen & Slim is a powerful, consciousness-raising love story that confronts the staggering human toll of racism and the life-shattering price of violence.
Set amidst the upheaval of modern-day media-fueled America, Queen & Slim is a searing exploration of the country’s current social and political climate through the unfiltered lens of a defiant but life-affirming story of Black love.
This unflinching new drama marks the feature-film directorial debut of two-time Grammy Award-winning director Melina Matsoukas, the visionary filmmaker behind this generation’s most powerful pop-culture experiences, including HBO’s Insecure, the Emmy award-winning “Thanksgiving” episode of Netflix’s Master of None, and Beyoncé’s “Formation,” from a screenplay by trailblazing Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe (Netflix’s Master of None), who wrote the screenplay from a story by her and best-selling author James Frey (A Million Little Pieces and the upcoming Katerina).
While on a forgettable first date together in Ohio, a Black man (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) and a Black woman (Jodie Turner-Smith, in her first starring feature-film role), are pulled over for a minor traffic infraction. The situation escalates, with sudden and tragic results, when the man kills the police officer in self-defense.
Terrified and in fear for their lives, the man, a retail employee, and the woman, a criminal defense lawyer, are forced to go on the run. But the incident is captured on video and goes viral, and the couple unwittingly become a symbol of trauma, terror, grief and pain for people across the country.
As they drive, these two unlikely fugitives will discover themselves and each other in the most dire and desperate of circumstances and will forge a deep and powerful love that will reveal their shared humanity and shape the rest of their lives.
A Chance Encounter, A New Idea
The origin of the project was seeded by a chance meeting, when best-selling author James Frey (A Million Little Pieces and novel My Friend Leonard) was introduced to Lena Waithe.
Waithe is from Chicago, and Frey had gone to school in Chicago for a year, so they shared that connection. Eventually Frey shared a nascent idea he had with her. Frey’s initial concept: A Black man and a Black woman go on a first date. He drives her home when they are pulled over by a police officer. The situation escalates, the cop is killed in self-defense. Rather than report it, the couple goes on the run.
Frey rightfully understood that, whatever iteration the idea took, it would need a deft Black voice to bring it to life. His hope was that the voice would be Waithe, if she were interested. Waithe, an evocative and socially conscious writer, producer and actor, reacted immediately. She knew there was a movie rooted in the idea. Now, she just needed to figure out what it was.
A Love Letter to Black America – Waithe Conjures New Cultural Icons
Waithe, who won an Emmy for writing on the Netflix series Master of None, began work on the screenplay and eventually shared a draft with her producing partner Andrew C. Coles, a former executive at Overbrook Entertainment and Scott Rudin Productions.
Like Waithe, Coles gravitates toward material that’s centered around the Black cultural experience, and he knew Waithe was in the midst of crafting a socially relevant snapshot of the contemporary American consciousness.
“One of the things that Lena has consistently done throughout her career, whether it’s writing, producing or acting, is saying something authentic, saying something timely and saying something that is meaningful to people,” Coles says.
“One of the things that was so exciting about this project from the beginning was the focus on these two individuals, people who might normally end up as just a headline for several news cycles and build a movie around them. In a lot of ways, Queen & Slim is a love letter to the Black community. It is a way to talk about our humanity and the lives that we live, the people who love us, the families that we have, and how all of that can very conveniently be forgotten when someone is brutalized by the police and becomes a headline.”
Waithe would go on to develop the screenplay through her normal workshopping process, defining the characters and defining the story. The film’s title, however, was an almost immediate decision. Within the first couple of paragraphs of her screenplay draft, Waithe knew she would call the beautiful and regal female lead Queen and her salt-of-the-earth suitor Slim.
“I named her Queen because I think all Black women are Queens,” Waithe says. “And Slim is an old-school affectionate term that Black men used to call each other. I wanted to tell a story about two very different Black people who are forced to be in a car together, who ultimately fall in love and around whom the outside world would create their own story and mythology. The story really comes down to the heroes that we create for ourselves to give us hope.”
Conversely, most of the people Queen and Slim encounter during their journey are nameless, both on the screen and in the script.
Waithe intentionally chose to name them with generic descriptors, e.g. “Large Black Man,” “Sheriff,” etc. “For me, it was less about the characters’ names and more about who they are,” Waithe says. “People who are familiar with each other rarely use one another’s names in conversation—they just know each other as people. I wanted the audience to get to know the characters as themselves, rather than focusing on what their names are.”
It would take Waithe eight months to complete her first draft. Throughout it all, she was simultaneously overseeing her Showtime series The Chi, writing for Master of None and filming her co-starring role in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.
During the development and writing process, Waithe had mentioned the project to Daniel Kaluuya, whom she knew socially. He was then coming off his Academy Award nomination for Jordan Peele’s Get Out and was immediately intrigued.
“Initially, Lena mentioned to me that she was working on a Bonnie and Clyde story,” Daniel Kaluuya says. “I thought, ‘Lena’s voice on that kind of narrative is definitely something I’d watch.’ A couple months later, she told me the premise of the film over dinner, and I remember being excited from there on out. I knew I wanted to be a part of it.”
Like Matsoukas and Waithe, Kaluuya strives to make films that speak to and for those whose voices are not fully represented, including the global box-office hit Black Panther. As a Black man and an artist, Kaluuya found that this story resonated with him on an intimate level and was a powerful cultural touchstone with beautifully crafted characters. “Audiences rarely see films from the perspective that Queen & Slim is from,” Kaluuya says. “Not in terms of race, but in terms of mentality. I want to make content for people that don’t feel seen, and this story felt radical in that way.”
Waithe knew Kaluuya would be an exciting choice to play Slim, but at the time she didn’t have a director committed to the film, and she wanted whoever that was to be involved in any casting decision. Luckily, Waithe had already been in early discussions with her top choice to direct Queen & Slim.
A Visionary Filmmaker – Melina Matsoukas Takes the Helm
When it came to consider directors for the project, Waithe could not envision anyone other than Melina Matsoukas at the helm.
Matsoukas and Waithe share a deep commitment to showcase the multicultural perspective in their work, and to create art that is more inclusive of people of color, women and the LGBTQIA community, and Matsoukas undoubtedly had the artistic acuity, the distinct point of view and the directing chops that the material demanded.
A longtime creative collaborator with Beyoncé, Matsoukas directed the groundbreaking video “Formation,” from the pop icon’s 2016 album Lemonade, as well as music videos for a who’s who of recording artists in the music industry. She had also recently directed and executive produced the HBO series Insecure starring Issa Rae.
Waithe had first met Matsoukas on the set of Master of None, when Matsoukas directed Waithe’s deeply personal “Thanksgiving” episode—the episode that would go on to earn Waithe her historic Emmy Award as the first Black woman in history to win for comedy writing. They hit it off immediately.
Lena trusted me in ways that I had never actually experienced before, so it was a tremendous working experience,” Matsoukas says. “I call her my ‘work soul sister.’” Waithe felt the same way. “Melina and I have a beautiful partnership,” Waithe says. “We have great chemistry, and it happened very organically. It was like we were sisters immediately.”
At the time they met, Matsoukas was searching for the right project to be her first feature film, and Waithe was working on the screenplay for Queen & Slim, which would be her first film as a writer as well.
Matsoukas’s producing partner, Michelle Knudsen, read the first draft of Waithe’s Queen & Slim script and was floored. As Matsoukas’s potential first film, it ticked all the boxes.
“Queen & Slim is contemporary and it’s provocative,” Knudsen says. “It doesn’t pull any punches. It has this incredible mix of lightness, love and kinetic energy while also dealing with very difficult subject matter. But it is very honest, and I immediately thought that there was something about the way it was written that just felt like a perfect match for the visual work that Melina loves to do. She loves to do things that are powerful and that speak to Black America. It’s a classic cinematic story in the vein of a Bonnie and Clyde or a Thelma & Louise, but it’s also such an American story: the road movie across America. Now, in this moment, that feels so relevant and so important. This is meant to be a window into this couple’s journey through America. It becomes an exploration of the American landscape, both physical and metaphorical.”
Matsoukas herself was motivated by the intent and energy behind Waithe’s script.
“My passion for any project will always come from the material, and Lena’s script did not disappoint,” Matsoukas says. “Reading that last page, I knew the film could be revolutionary, and I knew I wanted to be the one who would bring this story to life. I couldn’t have chosen a better partner to go on this journey with. Queen & Slim is the first feature film for us both, so I knew it would be special. I like to do things that shift and create a dialogue and challenge the way people think and maybe lead to a change in the world in some way. I’ve tried to do that with my previous work in music videos, television and commercials. I focus on projects that I’m passionate about, that speak to my values as a person, first and foremost, and then as an artist who can entertain and inform.”
Waithe was thrilled to join forces with Matsoukas in bringing this landmark film to life.
“She’s a ball of fire and had such a unique vision for Queen & Slim,” Waithe says. “She took everything very seriously and was passionate about every detail. She made sure that every shot, look and moment was iconic, and she brought the words to life in a way that only she could.” She never doubted that Matsoukas had been the right filmmaker to bring this story into the world.
“I felt very comfortable with the story in Melina’s hands,” Waithe says. “She’s always exceeded my expectations. To me, we’re like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. I toss her the ball up and she knows what to do with it.”
By then the project had caught the attention of veteran entertainment executive Brad Weston and Pamela Abdy, who had recently partnered together to found Makeready, an independent studio with a focus to develop, finance, and produce talent-driven projects exactly like Queen & Slim.
“Queen & Slim is a powerful, beautiful and authentic film about culture and systemic problems in our country,” Weston says. “When Pam and I launched Makeready, we worked at defining the type of content that we wanted to make and be known for. Queen & Slim became our first film. It felt like the perfect representation of what we wanted our company to stand for. Sadly, this story is as relevant as any idea could be, and our hope is that the authenticity and realness will stimulate conversations and become part of the cultural narrative.”
Violence, Racism and Love – Truth and Meaning in Queen & Slim
At times a study of race, gender and inclusiveness in America, Queen & Slim is also a soulful love story forged from that explosive cultural landscape.
“This film uses the horrible situation that Queen and Slim are put in to show the power of community and the need to stand up for oneself,” producer Brad Weston says. “The racism and police brutality that this film dives into is heartbreaking, but it ultimately shows that love prevails and humanity wins.”
In a split second, the lives of two law-abiding citizens change and they are forever intertwined. Queen, who has been shot and wounded by the police officer, is at her most vulnerable as she fights to stay in control. Slim, who shot and killed the police officer in self-defense after the officer shot Queen, is numb with the realization he unwittingly took a life. Both are plunged into a chaotic and dire situation they can’t talk their way out of. They flee the scene to regroup, knowing to stay means certain retribution from the police.
“A lot of the material in this story is heavy and emotional,” Turner-Smith says. “It touches on how Queen and Slim process trauma and is infused with paranoia because the two of them are constantly on the run.”
The filmmakers acknowledge that there are no easy answers or solutions to the complicated and thought-provoking situations presented in the film. “As artists, Lena and Melina are not heavy-handed,” says producer Andrew C. Coles. “They are not going to shove a message down an audience’s throat, but they are going to ask hard questions. They are going to create a provocative scenario that, we hope, creates dialogue.”
As Waithe developed the screenplay and her two lead characters, she drew inspiration from 1960s civil rights icons Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“In the beginning, Queen was Malcolm X and Slim was Martin Luther King,” Waithe says, “and by the end of the story, they switch places.”
Like Spike Lee and his seminal classic Do the Right Thing, Waithe was striving to encourage a discourse on race relations in America with Queen & Slim, in a multilayered story that also speaks to love, hate, fear and ultimately the human condition.
“I want audiences to determine for themselves whether or not they think Queen and Slim are heroes,” Waithe says. “People will have different takes on it, and that’s what’s great about art. Rather than audiences looking to the artist for the answer, I prefer to let the art speak for itself, allowing the audience to look to themselves for the answer.”
Several times over the course of the eight-week film shoot, the filmmakers, cast and crew would arrive on set to hear another news story chronicling an incident or legal decision involving the shooting of a Black person by police.
It served as a constant reminder of the importance and timeliness of the story they were telling, and it reinforced their hope that the film they were making would have an impact and jump-start a fresh round of conversation for change. “Queen and Slim don’t see themselves as heroes because they didn’t ask to be put in the situation that they’re in,” producer Weston says. “They simply take destiny into their own hands and make proactive decisions to fight for what they stand for.”