Lena Waithe's 'Queen & Slim' Is An Odyssey For The Black Lives Matter Era

Nov 27, 2019
Originally published on November 27, 2019 5:02 pm

In her debut feature film, screenwriter Lena Waithe has written an odyssey set in the Black Lives Matter era.

Queen & Slim is about an African American couple on the run after a routine traffic stop gone wrong. They kill a white police officer in self-defense, and rather than entrust themselves to the U.S. criminal justice system, they flee.

The movie plays out over much of the United States. It explores, on a bigger scale, a lot of the themes that Waithe writes about in The Chi, her Showtime series set in South Side Chicago. In an interview, she calls this film a "meditation on blackness."

"The movie is sort of a result of every conversation that I've ever had with every black person I've ever met," Waithe says. "And also, it's an observation too, on our community: who we are, how beautiful we are, how complex we can be and how we are resilient. And sometimes we'll do whatever we have to do to survive. But yeah, it's really just this thing that came out of me, out of my body, that I needed to get off my chest — but it was really like a hug I wanted to give black people."


Interview Highlights

On writing the traffic stop scene

Daniel Kaluuya [who plays Slim] said something to me very interesting ... "Sometimes a black person respecting themselves can be read by a white person as disrespectful." And he said that to me the other day, and I thought: Whoa, that is so interesting. Because a big road map that I used for that scene, that I wrote a bajillion times again and again and again until I finally felt like I got it right, was Sandra Bland's dashcam footage. And it is horrifying to listen to, but here's the thing: It's not this really loud interaction. There's not yelling or screaming or anything. ...

There's a turn that I noticed in that footage that's very subtle — if you're not paying attention, you don't catch it. But it was the turn that I needed to help me figure out the scene, was that he asks her to put her cigarette out. And she makes a valid point. She says, "Is it illegal for me to smoke a cigarette in my own car?" He says, "No, it's not, but I'm asking you to put the cigarette out." She says no.And then instantly: "Step out of the car. Step out of the car. Get out of the car." And that's the turn. And to me, it was as if he felt disrespected. He felt like his authority wasn't being respected or being honored or being valued. And obviously, that is the difference between life and death.

And so for this scene, he just asks — it's cold, and mind you we were in Cleveland, Ohio, it was freezing, we were there for a polar vortex ... and the line was just, "Can you please hurry up?" And then Daniel added, "Because it's cold." Because it was freezing. And I knew, I said: Yeah, that could be the turn. And even on the page, I say: In an instant, it goes from 2019 to 1968. ...

That is our fundamental issue, I think, between black people and police. The police want us to bow down and respect them. But also: Respect has to be earned. You've got to treat me like a human being.

On Queen and Slim being recognized as outlaw heroes

Lena Waithe attends the world premiere of Queen & Slim in Hollywood, Calif.
Jesse Grant / Getty Images for Audi

Waithe: I think, because our history as black people with the police has been so turbulent, so violent, a lot of people point to Rodney King, which is a clear example of police brutality. But then you could also go back to the civil rights movement. Who was it that was hosing down college students; who was it that was sicking dogs on them, beating them with batons? It wasn't just crazy racist white people, it was the police. ...

So that is why I said if two black people ever killed a police officer, in self-defense or not, I knew that there would be pockets of the black community that would look at them and applaud, whether it's right or wrong. There'd be some black people that would think that was extremely irresponsible.

King: You have characters say that too. You have a character who at one point says, "What you did was wrong. It gives the cops now an excuse to shoot us."

Waithe: Correct. But then somebody could argue: "Since when do they need an excuse?" ... What Queen and Slim represent are the two different ways black people can behave when they get pulled over by a police officer.

King: Which are?

Waithe: Yes, sir; no, sir. Yeah, you can search my car; yes, you can search my person; no, I haven't had anything to drink. You know, being very obedient.

Or you can say: May I ask why I was pulled over? May I see your badge number? Let me speak to the person above you. No, you may not search my car without a warrant.

You've got to decide. Who do you want to be that day?

On writing a road-trip odyssey

I'd also write beautiful scenery, fields, trees, because I've been on a couple long road trips, and that always happens when you get out of a city. When you're in between cities, it's just, like, land for as far as the eye can see. ... You just feel like: You're out on the open road. And you don't care what's behind you. You're excited to see what's in front of you. And you just feel — it's freeing. And that's the thing, too, it's like: America is beautiful. But it's also ugly — you know, underneath the surface, because of our history and, you know, what we've done to each other.

And that's why I really love the exchange when he says, "Man, it's beautiful out here" because he's never been this far out of Cleveland, Ohio; he's never done that. But then what do you see? Which is also a real thing: You see prisoners working the land. Which is just a real thing, which I've seen on long road trips and it freaks me out. I understand it, you know; I understand that part of the system, but it feels like modern-day slavery. ... Nothing's more American than that. A beautiful road and trees and grass — and then, of course, black and brown bodies working the land. ...

And she says — after he says, "It's so beautiful out here," she goes, "Is it? Is it?"

Sydney Harper and Vince Pearson produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In her debut feature film, screenwriter Lena Waithe has written an odyssey set in the Black Lives Matter era. "Queen & Slim" is about a couple on the run after a routine traffic stop gone wrong. They kill a white police officer in self-defense, and rather than entrust themselves to the U.S. criminal justice system, they flee.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "QUEEN AND SLIM")

JODIE TURNER-SMITH: (As Queen) What if they kill us?

DANIEL KALUUYA: (As Slim) Don't say that.

TURNER-SMITH: (As Queen) There's no guarantee they won't. You're a black man that killed a cop and took his gun.

KALUUYA: (As Slim) I'm not a criminal.

TURNER-SMITH: (As Queen) You are now.

MARTIN: The movie plays out over much of the United States. It explores on a bigger scale a whole lot of the themes Waithe writes about on her Showtime drama "The Chi," which is about life in South Side Chicago. Waithe recently talked with our co-host Noel King, and she called this film a meditation on black life in America.

LENA WAITHE: Who we are, how beautiful we are, how complex we can be and how we are resilient and sometimes will do whatever we have to do to survive.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Let's talk about Queen and Slim and how we meet them. They're in, like, a diner on a date.

WAITHE: Yep.

KING: And it's a Tinder date (laughter).

WAITHE: Right.

KING: Tell us about who these people are.

WAITHE: They are coming from very different places. You know, he's probably coming from, you know, eight-hour shift at Costco. She's a defense attorney, and she's almost like a superhero in a way. She kind of goes around and tries to save people from the system, and the system has sort of failed her that day, and she's not feeling great about it.

KING: They're on their way home, and they're pulled over by a white police officer. And then things really turn.

WAITHE: You know, Daniel Kaluuya said something to me - very interesting.

KING: He plays Slim.

WAITHE: Sometimes a black person respecting themselves can be read by a white person as disrespectful. And I thought, whoa, that is so interesting because a big road map that I used for that scene that I wrote a bazillion times was Sandra Bland's dashcam footage.

KING: Sandra Bland - the woman who was pulled over in Texas...

WAITHE: Yes.

KING: ...Pulled over by a police officer.

WAITHE: Yeah. And then ultimately was found dead in police custody a few days later. There's a turn that I noticed in that footage that's very subtle, but it was the turn that I needed to help me figure out the scene. He asks her to put her cigarette out. And she makes a valid point. She says, is it illegal for me to smoke a cigarette in my own car? He says, no, it's not, but I'm asking you to put the cigarette out. She says, no. And then, instantly - step out of the car. And that's the turn. It was as if he felt like his authority wasn't being respected. That is the difference between life and death.

And so for this scene, he just asks - it's cold. And mind you - we were in Cleveland, Ohio. It was freezing. We were there - polar vortex. And the line was just, can you please hurry up?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "QUEEN AND SLIM")

KALUUYA: (As Slim) Could you please hurry up?

STURGILL SIMPSON: (As Police Officer Reed) What did you say?

KALUUYA: (As Slim) It's just cold.

SIMPSON: (As Police Officer Reed) Put your hands on your head and get on the ground now.

KALUUYA: (As Slim) Are you serious?

WAITHE: Yeah. And then he added - Daniel added, because it's cold. And I knew - I said, yeah, that could be the turn. And even on the page, I say, in an instant, it goes from 2019 to 1968.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "QUEEN AND SLIM")

SIMPSON: (As Police Officer Reed) Get on the [expletive] ground.

KALUUYA: (As Slim) Sir, sir, sir - we don't have to do this.

TURNER-SMITH: (As Queen) Why is he under arrest? What is your name?

SIMPSON: (As Police Officer Reed) Get back in the car.

TURNER-SMITH: (As Queen) What is your badge number?

SIMPSON: (As Police Officer Reed) I'm not going to tell you until you get back in the [expletive] car.

KALUUYA: (As Slim) Get back in the car. Get back in the car. We got this.

TURNER-SMITH: (As Queen) Why is he under arrest?

KALUUYA: (As Slim) Sir, we don't have to - sir, sir, sir?

TURNER-SMITH: (As Queen) What is your badge number?

WAITHE: That is our fundamental issue, I think, between black people and the police. The police want us to bow down and respect them, but also, respect has to be earned; you've got to treat me like a human being.

KING: Queen and Slim get out. They hit the road. They flee. But they begin to realize along the way that they've become heroes, kind of outlaw heroes, to many black people.

WAITHE: Yeah. I mean, I think because our history as black people with the police has been so turbulent, so violent. A lot of people point to Rodney King, which is a clear example of police brutality. But then you can also go back to the civil rights movement. Who was it that was hosing down college students? Who was it that was siccing dogs on them, beating them with batons? It wasn't just, like, crazy racist white people; it was the police.

KING: Yeah, it was the authorities.

WAITHE: So that is why I said, if two black people ever killed a police officer, in self-defense or not, I knew that there would be pockets of the black community that would look at them and applaud, whether it's right or wrong. There would be some black people that would think that was extremely irresponsible.

KING: You have characters say that, too. You have a character who at one point says, what you did was wrong. It gives the cops now an excuse to shoot us.

WAITHE: Correct. But then so they could argue, since when did they need an excuse? What Queen and Slim represent are the two different ways black people can behave when they get pulled over by a police officer.

KING: Which are?

WAITHE: Yes, sir. No, sir. Yeah, you can search my car. Or you can say, may I ask why I was pulled over? May I see your badge number? Let me speak to the person above you. You've got to decide - who do you want to be that day?

KING: You know, I think of your writing and I think of it as being very place-specific. Like, you know, in "The Chi," it's the South Side of Chicago. It's specific neighborhoods. This movie unrolls over half of the United States of America.

WAITHE: Right.

KING: And I wondered, is it freeing to be able to write that much space? Is it scary to have to write that much space? Like, what is it that comes with writing an odyssey, I guess, is what I'm asking?

WAITHE: You know, it's freeing because I get to explore all these different characters. But at the same time, it is daunting because I had an actual map on my wall next to my character stuff (laughter).

KING: This made me so curious. I know nothing about making movies or writing movies. But this is a very beautiful movie. You see all of these scenes from across the country. And I was wondering, when you're writing this, my guess is you're not on a road trip.

WAITHE: Nope.

KING: (Laughter) So how do you write - do you just write...

WAITHE: I would just say, like, beautiful...

KING: ...Beautiful Georgia?

WAITHE: Well, I would - yeah, but I'd also write beautiful scenery fields, you know, because I've been on a couple long road trips, and that always happens. Like, when you get out of a city, you're out on the open road, and you're just like, America is beautiful. But it's also ugly because of our history and, you know, what we've done to each other. And that's why I really love the exchange when he says, man, it's beautiful out here, because he's never been this far out of, like, Cleveland, Ohio. But then what do you see? Which is also a real thing. You see prisoners.

KING: Yeah. Inmates working along the side of the road.

WAITHE: Working. To me, that's what I wanted to show. It was like, that's what - nothing's more American than that - a beautiful road and trees and grass and then, of course, black and brown bodies working the land. And she says - after he says, it's so beautiful out here, she goes, is it? Is it?

KING: Lena Waithe, screenwriter and producer of "Queen & Slim." Thank you so much for joining us.

WAITHE: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURYN HILL'S "GUARDING THE GATES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.