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Film / TVRevolutionarySex & Gender

‘queen & slim’ explores new black love gender roles

November 22, 2019
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In the photograph of Queen and Slim that has become infamous in the movie, Slim (played by Daniel Kaluuya) leans up against their car while Queen (played by Jodie Turner-Smith) sits tall on the hood gazing down at him. It’s a new take on one of Bonnie and Clyde’s most iconic photo, where Clyde hoists Bonnie in the air standing in front of their getaway vehicle as if she, too, is a trophy to their legacy. But in Queen & Slim’s version, Slim isn’t holding her up; they’re both holding their own as he still radiates magnetic confidence couched below her. The symbolic image is fitting for a movie that uses the feminist lure of the Bonnie and Clyde myth (where Bonnie smokes cigars and totes guns alongside her outlaw husband) to make a statement about what it really looks like to love a strong-headed independent Black woman today.

On the surface, Queen & Slim (in theaters November 26) is a commentary on police brutality as the duo’s underwhelming first date ends with killing a cop at a traffic stop escalation and fleeing the scene, sparking a nationwide manhunt. But the love story between the two propels the movie. And the most electrifying thing about their relationship is finally getting to see how a Black love story plays out when a woman starts off as the clear alpha in the room.

The movie is, of course, operating in a tradition of Black love stories that have found their own ways to push back on conservative gender rules. In movies like Poetic Justice, Justice (Janet Jackson) represents for the baggy jersey-wearing women of ’90s hip hop culture, while Monica (Sanaa Lathan) in Love and Basketball fights off her mother’s critiques of her tomboy looks to find love with someone who embraces her sporty flair. Similarly, the men in some cult classics become more lovable when they start embracing their softer or more feminine side, like Poetic Justice’s thug life protagonist Lucky (Tupac Shakur) who finally makes Justice smile with his manicured nails. And everyone’s favorite one-earring sensitive boy Darius Lovehall (Larenz Tate) gets the ladies going in Love Jones moving between reciting poems, cooking breakfast, and playfully backing it up on his love Nina Mosley (Nia Long).

(from left) Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) in “Queen & Slim,” directed by Melina Matsoukas.

Queen & Slim takes those historic themes to a new level by actually reversing stereotypical gender roles, making Queen the hot-headed leader in the duo while Slim often struggles to keep up. Queen quickly becomes the more authoritative shot caller partly because of her background expertise as a lawyer, but also because she’s more militant, decisive, and confident. (She holds a sheriff at gunpoint with no hesitation while Slim fails to stick up a gas station because a young white boy didn’t take him seriously.) Slim seems to represent men who aren’t naturally aggressive or prone to abrasive outbursts while Queen takes on the mantle of the smart boss lady. Both of their demeanors have their merits and, to a certain extent, they generally represent a progressive vision of what Black men and Black women are encouraged to be more like (men should be less abrasive; women should take up more space).

But the movie is quick to point out that they’re struggling to find love and acceptance the way that they are. It’s still a challenge for today’s fiercely independent women to find men that can adjust to them, as we see in early scenes where the two keep getting into small power battles. And the movie highlights that society can still be pretty judgmental toward men who let their partner take the reins too. (Queen’s Uncle Earl — played by Bokeem Woodbine — straight up tells Slim, “I believe in a woman’s right to choose, but you ain’t shit.”) The challenge of their journey and love story is essentially to figure out how their personalities can work well together and that, in turn, becomes a broader statement about accepting their forms of womanhood and masculinity.

(from left) Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) in “Queen & Slim,” directed by Melina Matsoukas.

Even though Queen and Slim don’t quite get along at first, the fact that they get locked into a mutual journey gives the movie a unique opportunity to confront both modern men and women’s struggle to find love. In real life, if they made it home they could easily avoid facing the power dynamic that made them uncomfortable by ghosting or swiping to find a new Tinder flame. In today’s mediasphere, too, the tension in the Black community over power-grabbing women is largely confined to momentary petty flare-ups, like Jermain Dupri belittling new-school female rappers as “stripper rapping”. And we still haven’t heard much about the everyday challenges of embracing softer masculinity from the male celebrities who’ve been championing it (save for the occasional gripe from cross-dressing rapper Young Thug). The movie takes on the important role of showing audiences what it realistically could look like to face the challenges and live comfortably in these expanded gender roles.

(from left) Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) in “Queen & Slim,” directed by Melina Matsoukas.

When Queen and Slim are on the road, they’re creating their own mini utopia, a world they may have never seen before but that they want to experience before it’s too late. Their new way of life serves as a dream-like vision for freedom outside of society’s most constricting laws, giving them a chance to redefine modern womanhood and manhood in ways that suit them. As director Melina Matsoukas explained at a screening in New York’s Weeksville Heritage Center, their outfit changes at Uncle Earl’s house signal that they’re undergoing their own personal transformations on the journey to find harmony together. Slim’s borrowed tracksuit gives him a more macho swag of the Dapper Dan era of hip hop. And Queen’s new short hairdo helps her shed a rigid facade and embrace vulnerability — even while her tight short dress also draws attention to her tall muscular body, showcasing a more masculine type of beauty. In their new utopia, they both enjoy angelic singers like Solange and the gangster rap of Mike Jones as they take turns driving, and each tries their hand at leaning freely out the car window in a move straight from Beyonce’s “Formation” video that Matsoukas also directed.

As they shape their ideal dynamic, they pick-up all the old school advice that they want to while leaving a lot of it behind. Queen starts to feel a responsibility to uplift Slim when one of Uncle Earl’s girlfriends (played by Indya Moore) says she treats Earl like a King in the house because “out there, he ain’t shit.” Black women have historically called out that line of thinking many times over the years, warning that Black women have been prone to tolerate unfair behavior from Black men because they’re uplifting them or protecting them from society’s racism. And Uncle Earl’s character certainly showed the downside of that logic when he got away with slapping one of his girlfriends because Queen pointed out that the war fucked him up. But in their world on the road, Queen is able to borrow from the positive aspects of the old-school advice and use it to uplift a man who doesn’t take advantage of her support.

By the conclusion of the movie, their power battle dissolves into a relationship where they each use their gifts to compliment and help one another. (Spoiler Alert!) Despite all the movie’s tragedy, their relationship is still cathartic because the movie’s greatest gift is getting viewers to imagine how they would live if they could escape society’s judgment with someone they love. The equality Queen and Slim create is a hope, a rumination, a foreshadow, and a promise for the future of Black love. It’s a future where people don’t try to fix or mold one another’s identities as much as they give each other the space and encouragement to grow into their truest form. Queen said it best when she told Slim she wants a man who won’t try to heal her scars. She wants a man to simply hold her hand while she heals them herself.

Taylor Hosking is a culture journalist who writes about social movements and changing identity politics in pop culture.