An Ode to "Queen and Slim"
Lena Waite and Melina Matsoukas' film is a a Black love letter, says UCLA professor Marcus Anthony Hunter.
Black love matters. I found I already know Queen and Slim, our protagonists, but I have not seen them this way. I know them because Shelley and Marcus are mine. They collided in a blaze of glorious Black love at the site of a failed state funded junior college. The town’s combined high school is there now, which I guess makes sense because then the junior college never really failed, never really happened. My parents were teenagers anyways then, so I guess it was always a high school anyways. Theirs was a complicated love, with twists and turns, addiction and violence, forgiveness and acceptance, surrender and bewilderment. It has found some sort of end, along the way producing at least four new beginnings. My brothers and sister, a motley crew of brown-skinned Black kids—nodes on a relationship continuum born out of the power and possibility of their love high. Love is a high, interestingly present when two or more are gathered because of it.
In a world that is constantly being made and remade through ideas of human difference and worthiness, Black love relationships and the institutions upholding them are on the chopping block. This is perhaps evermore the case for straight Black love: a portal through which many of us still come, one that has been tainted and corrupted by neglect, insecurity, violence, and trauma. We need only look to the historical pattern of countless Black LGBTQ homeless youth whom have been thrown away, and thrown out, by their straight Black parents. Hanging on a by a string. Hanging on to the others who have been discarded, waiting for that phone call or that email or that letter in the mailbox where their parents remember their duty-bound obligation to be an example of the capacity of Black love to love without injuring those most in need of it. The next life and its afterlives are depending on it. Fear and power influence the outside, managing to imbue the inside too. Harmful and unkind rules are adopted and applied for generations, limiting the time for our considerations of who is worthy of our love. Too much settling, we will say, is the culprit.
Children are of course the first witnesses and often first victims of the consequences of these rules and histories in straight Black love relationships. We—kids-turned-black-love-chasing adults—then take what we see, almost see, and almost saw, heard and almost heard, reprise and recast it as adults in our love relationship(s). We run away from their model only to run into it anyways. Black love has a pattern and a blue(s)print.
This will not change unless some of us are brave enough to venture to reimagine straight Black love, helping to halt its steady lemming-like fall off the cliff. Cliff and Claire. James and Florida. Mary and Lester. Ossie and Ruby Dee. Malcolm and Betty. Martin and Coretta. Paul and Eslanda. Beyoncé and Jay Z. Barack and Michelle. Ganja and Hess. Ursa and Mutt. And now, Queen and Slim.
We are late, and breathless, but there is still time for repair of Black love. This is Queen and Slim’s message. Black love—fragile, vulnerable, difficult, but alive. Standing before a firing squad, but alive. Etched in the palm lines that merge when one beautifully complicated Black woman reaches for the hand of her chosen, who as we learn was always chosen just for her. As she is for him, he is for her. It’s in the blood. Black love and Black people are on the run.
And run with them.
Mississippi. Be still.
They are for us.
They had to grow on each other. Learn of one another, again, and then some more. Accept that two different energies and paths led them to the same road, the same call to carve out a new destiny. If it is true that they are in danger and being chased, then it must also be true that each of their perspectives on escape and freedom while different are equally invested in a future where they and perhaps their offspring would be free. We may not know it while watching, but we the audience, the Black spectators, are Queen and Slim’s progeny. A new coterie of Black kids reared from witnessing what could be, if the limitations and capacities Queen and Slim were a new standard; a new kind of Black love, aware of anti-Blackness, white supremacy, racial capitalism, toxic gender norms, inconvenience and reluctance, but no longer traumatizing itself because of the antagonistic reality. Grander than a cat-and-mouse all-lives-matter-distraction, this story is a powerful filmic anchor for a movement promoting the notion that Black people need to go back to retrieve the love that endures so as to move the culture forward into a newfound wellness. But it must give you the reality and play with it, so that you can know it is a simulation. An exercise that’s not really happening right now, but could become a true story as soon as you leave theater. Maybe even while you are watching.
In the beginning and even up until the very end, neither an iridescent regal Queen, nor the everyday imma-call-my-daddy-when-we-in-trouble-because-it-soothes-me Slim fully appreciate how much they matter to Black people and the struggle for freedom for all people. For the film’s duration, Queen and Slim are too under attack to have a real understanding of their impact. Their running away, like the stories of escaped slaves 400 years ago, have a magnetic effect on mass, on Black mass. The church is not dead, yet. Trust God.
They are a church.
We are meant to meet each other.
Together we can be better, stronger, even more so if love is involved. We can run from and perhaps escape nearly anything, but the inside, that part, will always be there. We can be more responsible lovers. See their love while there is still time. We will all be better because of it. Black love is the message.