I am inconsolable. Even when the tears dry, my heart is weary, my lungs are heavy.
I held my breath those last 40 minutes of “Queen & Slim,” the new film from Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas in select Boston theaters today — officially debuting on Thanksgiving.
My stomach is tense, tight, and turning, I haven’t felt this shook by a scene since the ending of “Set It Off.” Every frame shot so beautifully, words chosen with care, and the reality of mortality piercing every scene.
“Queen & Slim” sticks to my ribs, clings to my spirit, and forces me to climb into bed and cuddle myself to sleep. It’s equal parts romance and horror, and the realness has me shook.
Before I doze off, I keep wondering to myself, do we celebrate black death more than black life?
We meet Queen and Slim on their first date, a Tinder date. She wasn’t even interested in a sequel. We watch them fall in love on the run. We watch them dance, we watch them try new things, we watch them love, and cry, and rage on the run.
Like Ms. Lauryn Hill’s “Guarding the Gates” on the movie’s soundtrack, the run is part of our collective truth.
Everybody, everybody wants to know
Where you’re goin’ to, what you’re runnin’ from
What you’re goin’ through, where you’re comin’ from
Waithe and Matsoukas gave us that unforgettable “Master of None” Thanksgiving episode two years ago, the Emmy Award-winner, that loosely told the story of Waithe coming out to her mom.
This Thanksgiving — or National Day of Mourning — the duo forces us to dive into black life, black love, and black death.
This isn’t a movie you see. It’s a cinematic experience. If you are black, it’s a film you live with, like “Boyz n the Hood” or “Love Jones.” It will never leave you.
All that you could be is a spectacle
Following after every single miracle
Watch them marvel at
All the joy you have
But they’re too important to have all the joy you have
What a tragedy, you can laugh at me, you can laugh at me
“Pictures are more than just vanity,” Queen tells Slim. ‘They’re proof you were here.”
“Queen & Slim,” is evidence of loving and living in the era of #BlackLivesMatter.
The way “Get Out” shifted how we see horror films and found a new way to tackle double-consciousness and the black American experience, “Queen & Slim” carefully colors the picture of black love, constantly running a tight rope between black life and black death, the urgency of joy and intimacy because of the constant threat of vilification.
It’s joy and pain, it’s the blue-black bruises of brutality and racism and the beaming yellow sun that makes melanin smile. It’s one of the most important films of this era.
People want it to be “Bonnie and Clyde.” But nah. Neither Queen nor Slim fantasized about committing a crime. A crime happened to them. Their blackness is not a choice. A white officer made a traffic stop violent. And the reality of an unjust justice system forced them to run.
Waithe doesn’t demonize every cop or glorify all black folk. “Queen & Slim” is a seven-layer cake of black American life, made with love and nuance.
Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) is never referred to by that moniker, nor is Slim (Daniel Kaluuya).
In fact, we do not know their names until the final minutes. Their namelessness makes it easier to see yourself in them. It’s also a devastating reality for everyday black Americans.
We’re invisible to so many until we’re a hashtag or a headline, when our pictures are painted on walls, placed on t-shirts, and artists immortalize us. There’s a price we pay that can never be reimbursed.
What does it mean to our youth when we make the murdered our idols? What does it mean that if we don’t say their names, we don’t have a shot at justice? How do we teach our children to aspire to life in a country that pushes black death like snuff films, streaming live on the Internet?
We don’t need to be Bonnie and Clyde to know the realness of running. For so many reasons, starting with slavery and persistently rooted in systemic racism, black Americans are often on the run. Be it code-switching, pesky little prejudices, or the insidious dangers of supremacy, the need for black escape is real.
This is a country where even black preschoolers are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended as their white classmates, where black men and boys are 2.5 times more likely than white men and boys to be killed by police, where black women are killed at a higher rate than any other person and black girls are suspended more than most anyone.
And Ms. Hill knows our melancholy melody.
Tryna fix myself for society
Tryna mix myself for society
But can you tell me, where is love in anxiety?
Can you tell me, where is love in anxiety?
Some people might see “Queen & Slim” and say no way, they wouldn’t quit running to slow dance and have a drink. They find a love scene, spliced with the violence of a protest turned tragedy, clunky. I find it poetic.
When Queen pulls over on the side of the road to marvel at a white horse — she tells Slim how her grandpa told her white men were scared of a black man on a horse because it meant he had to look up at him — we see Slim get on a horse for the first time.
For a fleeting moment, he is high on life and liberation. He is Lauren London on that horse, Nipsey Hussle by her side, royalty in Compton. The black beauty is defiant and necessary.
Queen wants to be loved so much she can show a man her ugly parts. Waithe and Matsoukas love black folk so deeply they kiss our scars and celebrate our resilience.
Last year, the Institute of Contemporary Art showed “Arthur Jafa: Love is the Message, The Message is Death,” a video installation comprised of clips of concerts, protests, breaking news, and police cameras. It is a mash-up of black trauma and black joy. So is “Queen & Slim.”
In the life I live and the lives I witness, these are familiar intersections. I often revisit my favorite Ernie Barnes painting: “Sugar Shack,” the one that graces the cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You,” the one in “Good Times.”
Everyone is dancing, arms stretched to the sky, eyes closed; they look free, they look like love.
Ms. Hill, like Waithe and Matsoukas, sings our black lives with her song.
These broken thoughts in my mind
Can’t let ‘em get down in there
Can’t let ‘em get down in there
‘Cause I need real love
I need real love
I’m guarding, guarding the gates
Barnes said he never painted anyone with their eyes open because we too often stop at color, blind to one another’s humanity. “Queen & Slim” paints us with our eyes wide open. See our blackness and witness our humanity, too.
We dance in the dark between the rhythm of life and the blues of death. We love.Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.