Film & TV

Queen & Slim, a Meme Movie for Black Lives Matter Fans

Bokeem Woodbine and Indya Moore in Queen & Slim (Andre D. Wagner/Universal Pictures)
Black Hollywood’s new self-exploitation

Queen & Slim, the new Blaxploitation movie (more on that later), is primarily an attempt at myth-making. The advertising poster showing an unnamed black male-and-female duo striking a casually defiant pose sums up the film itself — in which the two main characters are never named. It’s an indication that in Millennial narratives, memes and iconography play a greater role than storytelling.

The story in Queen & Slim converts a lovers-on-the-lam format — Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith meet on a Tinder blind date — to an archetypal nightmare. The blacks are pulled over by a white policeman and, during the subsequent altercation, the couple wind up as cop-killers and instant folk heroes.

Screenwriters Lena Waithe (an intersectional media celebrity) and notorious novelist James Frey perpetuate the idea that black Americans are victimized by the police — a political notion that gained traction just as Obama was leaving office and the nation’s ethnic populace felt bereft of any real social advantage. Queen & Slim is part of the grievance industry that grew from that disappointment. The filmmakers presume that audiences automatically distrust police; race-based social paranoia is used to sell martyr chic.

Queen & Slim perverts the road-movie genre that is usually about social exploration, not bias confirmation. Every classic ’70s road movie offered a picaresque survey of cultural differences that illustrated the multiplicity of American life. (Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Badlands, The Sugarland Express, and Thieves Like Us reflected skeptical concerns of their time.) But Queen & Slim poorly reiterates the post–Ferguson, Mo., canards from Michael Brown’s fictitious “hands-up don’t shoot” to the Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice mythologies.

Instead of urging viewers to question media accounts and move toward self-reflection, Queen & Slim uses marketing iconography to make up for what lead actors Kaluuya and Turner-Smith lack in charisma. Their partnership recalls Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s brief stint as hip-hop “Bonnie & Clyde,” a ride-or-die criminal fantasy. But this Queen and Slim are just stick figures.

Neither of these unnamed characters is more than a meme; their backgrounds are sketchy. Whether she declares, “It should be a sin to call a black woman crazy” or he hums along to gospel music on the car radio and says, “I don’t believe in luck, I believe things are destined,” they are essentially news-media stereotypes. The only character development occurs when Turner-Smith shaves her stereotypical dreadlocks for an androgynous henna crew-cut and wears a form-fitting tiger-striped halter and snakeskin boots, and Kaluuya dons a ’90s jogging suit. The mix of glam and mundane attire trivializes the post–Hurricane Katrina setting in New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood — also recently seen in Black and Blue. These clichés are the stock-in-trade of debut director Melina Matsoukas, who hit the motherload of faux politics in Beyoncé’s Formation music video (its fashion-magazine version of Black Panther iconography is no different from the Ferguson-esque scenes here).

The interlude in which the couple visits the female’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), a war veteran turned pimp (“Iraq f***ed him up”), comes closest to believability — thanks primarily to Woodbine’s amusing portrayal of a frustrated tough guy. His pogo-stick tantrum is spot-on, as is his final impudent gesture in fur-collared finery. Woodbine’s authentic American-male hoodrat could be an Altman character (highest praise).

Since the advent-then-retreat of Obama, the media have formulated devious ways that teach blacks what to think and how to imagine themselves. That’s the real message of Queen & Slim’s criminal-victim meme. The unconvincing moment when these hostile partners fornicate is intercut with a pointless digression — a black youth infatuated with criminality (he takes the outlaw couple’s photo because “pictures are proof of your existence”) joins an anti-police protest where he kills a helpful black cop. Instead of investigating the fecklessness behind black police killings, the filmmakers exploit the blame narrative — a racial version of Thelma & Louise’s faux feminism. It may flatter Black Lives Matter dupes, but even they should be disappointed by such triteness.

Queen & Slim’s intersectional race-and-gender political points are not audacious and transgressive, like those in Gregg Araki’s The Living End (1992), a wild, sexy road farce about a pair of AIDS-victim serial killers. Araki titillated his subculture audience while questioning its self-righteous presumptions. Most strikingly, Araki dared to challenge political correctness; Queen & Slim is the product of neo-Blaxploitation, minus genuine political observation as formerly seen in such radical entertainments as Sweet Sweetback, Blacula, Cool Breeze, and Thomasine & Bushrod. Queen & Slim exploits the naïveté of Black Lives Matter filmgoers who don’t know those cultural precedents.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

Most Popular

Education

Destroy the ‘Public’ Education System

‘Public” schools have been a catastrophe for the United States. This certainly isn’t an original assertion, but as we watch thousands of authoritarian brats tearing down the legacies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it’s more apparent than ever. State-run schools have undercut two fundamental ... Read More
Education

Destroy the ‘Public’ Education System

‘Public” schools have been a catastrophe for the United States. This certainly isn’t an original assertion, but as we watch thousands of authoritarian brats tearing down the legacies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it’s more apparent than ever. State-run schools have undercut two fundamental ... Read More
Culture

A Triumph at Mount Rushmore

If nothing else, President Donald Trump’s July Fourth speech at Mount Rushmore clarified the battle lines of our culture war. The New York Times called the speech “dark and divisive,” while an Associated Press headline declared, “Trump pushes racial division.” A Washington Post story said the speech ... Read More
Culture

A Triumph at Mount Rushmore

If nothing else, President Donald Trump’s July Fourth speech at Mount Rushmore clarified the battle lines of our culture war. The New York Times called the speech “dark and divisive,” while an Associated Press headline declared, “Trump pushes racial division.” A Washington Post story said the speech ... Read More
Culture

Why Progressives Wage War on History

Princeton University’s decision to remove the name “Woodrow Wilson” from its School of Public and International Affairs is a big win for progressive activists, and the implications will extend far beyond the campus. It hardly surprises me, in today’s polarizing environment, that my alma mater caved to ... Read More
Culture

Why Progressives Wage War on History

Princeton University’s decision to remove the name “Woodrow Wilson” from its School of Public and International Affairs is a big win for progressive activists, and the implications will extend far beyond the campus. It hardly surprises me, in today’s polarizing environment, that my alma mater caved to ... Read More
U.S.

Bad News about the Virus

On the menu today: an important update about indications that the coronavirus is now more contagious than it used to be, with far-reaching ramifications for how we fight this pandemic; a point on the recent complaints about the Paycheck Protection Program; and a new book for everyone closely following the debate ... Read More
U.S.

Bad News about the Virus

On the menu today: an important update about indications that the coronavirus is now more contagious than it used to be, with far-reaching ramifications for how we fight this pandemic; a point on the recent complaints about the Paycheck Protection Program; and a new book for everyone closely following the debate ... Read More
World

Putin’s Empire Strikes Back

In 1648, at the negotiating tables of Münster and Osnabrück, a panoply of European diplomats signed a document that would lay down the foundations of the modern world order: the Treaty of Westphalia. Naturally, the signatories did not realize the impact of their contribution to history. Far from a pack of ... Read More
World

Putin’s Empire Strikes Back

In 1648, at the negotiating tables of Münster and Osnabrück, a panoply of European diplomats signed a document that would lay down the foundations of the modern world order: the Treaty of Westphalia. Naturally, the signatories did not realize the impact of their contribution to history. Far from a pack of ... Read More