love or justice: in queen & slim, there is no way to get both

I've never been in looooove-love. I've probably been in like a handful of times. Infatuation too. I've even been in lust more times than I'm willing to admit. I also don't know many people who are Black and in love. I know Black love, though. Acts of service kind of love. Call me when you get home love. Here, I made this for you love. I was just thinking about you love.


Queen has likely also never been in love. In many ways, she encapsulates most of the tropes we believe of Black women: her past experiences have forced her to rely solely on herself. She’s used to getting the best results that way. But how things have turned out for her, it is impossible to go through this journey on her own. She’s forced to trust the process. To trust Slim. Which is so hard at first. The couple's first few hours are clumsy, intensified by anxiety and adrenaline about the actions that just took place.


Like it or not, Queen is a mirror to many of us Black women who tout our degrees and accomplishments as “Black excellence” yet also walk around with a great deal of internalized classism and anti-Blackness. At the diner, she calls him out for not being able to afford a nicer place for their date. When the waitress gets Slim’s order wrong, she “has a thing about that.” She also dislikes how loudly he chews his food. When they are first pulled over, she asks Slim if there are illegal weapons or substances in the car. Sis has a few things she needs to work through. As do we.


Slim, on the other hand, encompasses what we understand about men of faith: he’s trusting, family-oriented, and albeit a bit naive. Without Queen’s wits, it is likely they would have been caught in the first 24 hours. Or maybe Slim would have tried to turn himself in. His sense of faith leads him to believe all things will work themselves out.

Queen (left) and Slim (right).

When isolated, Queen and Slim’s vulnerability evolve into this tragic love story. I’m sure it's frustrating or maybe even tiresome to constantly see Black women depicted as too tough to love. Good on her own so she’s better off alone. Too self-righteous to be seen. She had already decided she wouldn’t see Slim again because she’s better off alone.


The strength of this film is found in the intimacy Queen & Slim are initially forced to share that becomes genuine over time. At Uncle Earl’s house in New Orleans, as they lay side by side, Queen yearns for closeness. But she doesn’t allow herself to want it. To ask for it. Instead, she rubs his head for good luck. By the time she makes it to her mother’s grave, she trusts in him enough to reach for his hand and allow him to comfort her. And even if it's corny, even if it's cliche, I deeply resonate with Queen when she asks for a love that leads her through her own healing and recovery. Because deep down I hope that is also waiting for me at the end of this.


Their last moments together are filled with embrace. Queen promises to never let go and dies professing her love for Slim. Slim dies holding her in his arms. They never surrender. Their love is a brave love.


Like many of its predecessors, Queen & Slim depicts the divinity of Blackness. It’s not lost on me how powerful faith is in this film in both imagery and characterization. That the lesser accomplished person in this couple is the one with the strongest faith. In earlier scenes, we see Slim’s TRUST GOD license plate. Crosses are a consistent aesthetic tool as well. We even see an atheist Queen lead the group in prayer towards the end. Though she later admits she still does not believe in God, she professes a strong sense of faith in Slim. Faith in something. Black love is in some ways a belief system and I liked how that was communicated in this message.


I also appreciate that a central message in this theme is police violence against Black women. Slim acts in self-defense and the defense of Queen when the first officer we are introduced to points his gun at her. She is also the first person targeted by cops at the end of their journey. In a time where Black women’s death due to police violence gets considerably less attention, those subtle nods in the film are important.

Queen (left) and Slim (right)

Love and justice may seem parallel in Queen & Slim but they manifest in a more polarizing way. While the couple falls in love, they don’t get justice. Nobody does. Certainly not us as an audience. What we get instead is a string of “nice white people” and “good” cops. The sheriff they rob at gunpoint who acknowledges some police officers take it too far. The crazy store clerk who just wants to hold Slim’s gun, points it straight at him, but doesn’t shoot. The Black cop who is also dating Uncle Earl’s side piece. Uncle Earl’s friend from prison who agrees to help them and his wife who doesn’t snitch. The Black cop who dies trying to level with an angry young protestor. The Black cop who lets them go.


I’m sure it was meant to be nuanced. I’m sure Hollywood’s politics also led to some of these plot decisions. It is just a bit ironic that a movie that is being lauded as a love letter to Black struggle is also pretty pro-police. It is an interesting stance for a film that is based on a couple going on the run for justifiably killing a police officer in an act of self-defense.


We also get an irresponsible splicing of passion and protest; as Queen & Slim turn a corner in their romantic relationship, a growing rally in defense of them takes a terrible turn when a young Black boy shoots a cop and ends up getting killed. This scene is a huge misstep for this film. I couldn’t help but think of Tamir Rice in this scene. It is dishonest at best and dangerous at most to portray the narrative of a deeply radicalized kid in a time where Black kids are at the receiving end of senseless violence at the hands of police officers in their schools, on their playgrounds, and on the streets. It is also incredibly insulting to the community organizers who risk their lives fighting for our collective freedom. The scene lacked cohesion and comprehension of movement work.


The pollution of the justice plotline cannot be ignored. If love is the story they get privately and justice is the story they fail to fulfill publically, what does that say about our understanding of love? I have come to understand Black love as inextricably linked to the idea of justice and liberation, and I don’t want one without the other. My ambivalence towards Queen & Slim does not mean I don’t appreciate it. Nor does it make this film disposable. The film is visually appealing. It also has a flirtatious embellishment from the longing glances to the tiny moments of physical touch. When I focus on just Queen and Slim, I am pleased with their development. Pleased with their love. I am dissatisfied, however, with how movements are portrayed.


Was it possible to not have love and justice in dichotomy? Are we given stories where we don’t have to choose? Our realities tend to force us to pick.


From its creators to its characterization, Queen & Slim is flawed. But despite its flaws I find some of its beauty and charm. The concerns, however, deserve attention. Whether you are a consumer or creator of Black art, we have a collective responsibility to dispel harmful, life-altering messaging about us.


Especially, if this is an attempt to be our legacy.


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