Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya, Queen & Slim
Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

“Black people don’t live, they survive,” Lena Waithe uttered to an eager audience of Essence Fest patrons who had just witnessed something that left us wanting more. That line not only reflects reality but embodies the upcoming film she wrote, Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas.

In case you need a refresher, here’s this much-anticipated film’s synopsis from its official press release:

While on a forgettable first date together in Ohio, a black man (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) and a black woman (Jodie Turner-Smith, in her first starring feature-film role), are pulled over for a minor traffic infraction. The situation escalates, with sudden and tragic results, when the man kills the police officer in self-defense. Terrified and in fear for their lives, the man, a retail employee, and the woman, a criminal defense lawyer, are forced to go on the run. But the incident is captured on video and goes viral, and the couple unwittingly become a symbol of trauma, terror, grief and pain for people across the country.

As they drive, these two unlikely fugitives will discover themselves and each other in the most dire and desperate of circumstances, and will forge a deep and powerful love that will reveal their shared humanity and shape the rest of their lives.

While gallivanting at Essence Fest (look out for more content from me about it this week, by the way!), I decided to take Universal Pictures’ invitation to catch the exclusive sneak peek at Queen & Slim. As I sauntered into the gorgeous Gallier Hall in New Orleans, I was wonderfully welcomed by the stunning artwork from the film. In fact, the studio had so seamlessly immersed us into the world it even took me a minute to realize Slim’s car was perched outside the building.

Queen & Slim First Look at Essence Festival
Photo: Jonathan Bachman (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

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At the mixer, we all enjoyed film-branded drinks, listened to music and chatted amongst ourselves. As for drinks, I decided to enjoy the “Slim.” Heyyy, Daniel.

After a quick introduction by Waithe and Matsoukas, we sat down in the intimately dark theater to watch the first 12 minutes of what is expected to become our very own Bonnie & Clyde (although it’s important to note that Waithe proudly admits her true inspiration is Set It Off).

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“I want to give voice to all the nameless [and] faceless men and women of color whose lives were taken by police officers, unjustly,” Waithe said during the panel session after we watched the opening.

Lena Waithe, Melina Matsoukas and moderator Melody Ehsani at the Queen & Slim First Look, Essence Festival.
Photo: Jonathan Bachman (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

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As Waithe suggested, instead of divulging exactly what I saw in the opening, I’ll let y’all know how it made me feel. Sure, you can figure out “the big moment” from the provided synopsis, but remember, it’s not the idea, it’s the execution. And I can best describe its execution as this: The film’s inciting incident is shrouded in suspense, colored by Matsoukas’ deft eye (there’s one particular shot with a “One Way” sign that had me like, “Shit, that’s some good framing.”) and elevated by the exquisite performances of Kaluuya and Turner-Smith.

From the very first frame, the audience is thrust into the dichotomy between Queen and Slim in such a smooth way, I found my heart pounding during that “big moment.” Not to mention the obvious heaviness from watching a dramatized version of the real-life mortality montage we’ve seen involving black people and police.

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Oh, and “In A Sentimental Mood” plays a role in the opener that’ll have you chuckling. Speaking of which, to promote the film, Slim’s Playlist (i.e. the list of songs he aggregated for this first date) is now available on Spotify.

Other than its stark images, what truly stuck out to me was the fact that Waithe and Matsoukas truly had “final cut” of this film, meaning, they were given carte blanche to do their thing without the typical hassle of the studio. And since they’re working with a major studio, that shit is unheard of for many creators in this industry, let alone two black women. But to even get that, they had to fight for it. It certainly wasn’t easy.

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“I always joke around, but I’m not joking when I say every shot up there is a war wound for me,” Matsoukas mused. But, like Waithe’s insistence that a black woman tells the story novelist James Frey initially approached her with, the two industry gatekeepers have assured us this film is “for us, by us.” From the black financiers to the black unit photographers on set. Solange croons it best— “This shit is for us.”

Bokeem Woodbine, Queen & Slim First Look at Essence Festival
Photo: Jonathan Bachman (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

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Listen. I want to talk about every single thing I witnessed, but I want everyone to experience it in the purest form even more. But, I’ll say one thing: Queen pops it all off with two words—“Let’s go.” Aw shit, we’re in for a ride.

Queen & Slim drives into theaters on Nov. 27, 2019.