Queen & Slim is a début feature film for Melina Matsoukas working with the prolific writer Lena Waithe, the first African-American woman to win a ‘comedy writer’ Emmy for her work on the series Master of None (2015). Waithe was also a producer on Dear White People (US 2014). Matsoukas has had a long career as a music video director topped by her contribution to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. It’s not surprising then that two such talented women should enable Jodie Turner-Smith to create the character ‘Queen’. It’s a terrific performance and with Daniel Kaluuya as ‘Slim’ they make a memorable couple.
The film came to the UK with some glowing reviews after its US release in November 2019, but there was little UK promotion – at least from my perspective – and I didn’t really know what to expect. But there were two reasons I wanted to see it. First, I knew that it begins with an altercation between a white police officer and the black couple after he stops their car with the result that they are forced to go ‘on the run’ with every police force looking for them. This links directly to the earlier The Hate U Give (US 2018) which I have worked on as a possible study text. There is also a later incident the film that directly links the two films as well. Second, I read somewhere that the narrative in some way references the idea of the ‘Underground Railroad’ by which slaves were able to escape from plantations and eventually to get to Canada in the pre-Civil War period. This was recently the central part of the story of Harriet Tubman in Harriet (US 2019).
Queen & Slim begins in Cleveland, Ohio when two people meet on a Tinder date. It isn’t going terribly well (neither character has a name as yet) and they have only known each other for a short time when their car is pulled over. What follows is perhaps best presented as a mash-up of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) with It Happened One Night (1934). If that sounds unlikely note that both these classic films are road movies. In one a bunch of ‘outlaws’ rob banks during the Great Depression, become media celebrities and are often admired by people whose savings and land have been ‘grabbed’ by those same banks. In the other, a man and a woman meet on a bus travelling to New York and somehow fall in love despite their differences.
In Queen & Slim, the couple make their way South and have a series of adventures on their way to Florida from where they hope to get to Cuba. They become ‘Queen’ and ‘Slim’ when they attempt to change their appearance at Queen’s Uncle Earl’s house. It’s at this moment perhaps that the film’s approach becomes clear (or rather, is confirmed). This isn’t strictly a ‘Hollywood realism’ film. There are moments when the characters do unexpected or plain stupid things which place them in more danger. Just one example – when they change clothes, Queen chooses a micro-dress which is so short it reveals the bandage on her thigh. Slim selects an outfit I don’t know how to describe but which appears to deliberately ‘type’ him. A little later they agree to be photographed and the resultant image is used on the film’s poster. Nick Lacey commented to me that the image is both striking but also possibly plays on the typing of both African-American men and women.
The Bonnie and Clyde tag is applied to the couple by one of the characters and it soon becomes clear that wherever they go in the South, African-Americans (and some white people) know who they are but still help them avoid the police. The Underground Railway reference is also clear when the couple are hidden in a clever way during a police search. These attitudes towards the ‘fugitives’ are also linked to various discourses about how working-class Americans (again mostly but not solely African-Americans) have been treated by government policies and institutional racism.
This is a long film (132 mins) and many commentators have argued that it is too long for the material. I don’t agree, I was engaged throughout and I felt I grew to know the characters. The film was shot, on film, by the British DoP Tat Radcliffe who shares a background with the director in music videos, but who has also worked on action features such as ’71 (UK 2014). Almost the whole film was shot on location in and around Cleveland and New Orleans. The film looks good in a ‘Scope frame and Radcliffe tells us (in this Kodak piece) that in the first part of the film, the camera is often static or ‘locked’ but towards the end there is much more Steadicam work. Radcliffe praises the director’s eye for detail and I was impressed by the use of landscapes and the detail of neighbourhood scenes. Too often Hollywood films seem to show the same nondescript city environments but this felt different (because of the New Orleans location, I couldn’t help thinking about Easy Rider (1969), a film with several similar elements).
One of the most enjoyable scenes in the film for me is a quick visit to a roadside bar with a live blues band. The band are fantastic and at this stage we are still surprised that everyone knows who this couple are – and Queen and Slim are still learning about each other. The music throughout the film is interesting, but I’m not really competent to comment on much of it. IMDB seems to have failed to find the music credits but lists of the songs and the artistes are available. I still can’t find who plays the live music in the bar. Does anybody know?
I’ve seen a negative comment about the fact that once again the leads in an African-American film are Brits. Jodie Turner-Smith was born in Peterborough but has lived in the US for some time and appeared in US film and TV productions. Daniel Kaluuya must be getting fed-up with this. Cynthia Erivo was also caught up with this kind of comment about her role in Harriet. I’m not sure whether her Oscar nomination improved matters. I don’t really understand this. Brits have always been part of Hollywood casting. Perhaps it is part of a commentary about roles for black actors in both the UK and US. There are far more opportunities in the US so it isn’t surprising Brits are often keen to go over.
Queen and Slim is an excellent début and definitely a film worth looking up.
The trailer below reveals quite a few aspects of the plot and a couple of the best gags.
This is an African-American Independent film that has received significant support for a début feature. The director Boots Riley appears on IMDb with a smattering of different credits as a writer and performer and he has had a successful musical career through the rapping collective The Coup, but for his first feature he has recruited Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker and Rosario Dawson in small parts and has Tessa Thompson in the lead female role. His protagonist Cassius (Cash) Green is played by Lakeith Stanfield, also an established actor, and Riley finds himself as the cover story for Sight and Sound‘s December issue. Inside, the interview conducted by Kaleem Aftab reveals that Riley comes from a family of left-wing activists in Oakland, that he went to film school and that he was inspired by Spike Lee. His film was also supported by the Sundance festival and is distributed by Focus Features/Universal in the UK.
I found the film interesting throughout, but there were also moments when I thought it wasn’t working. Adam Nayman’s review in Sight and Sound makes a couple of points that seem relevant to me. The first is to compare Sorry to Bother You to a film like Black Panther (which I haven’t seen) and to suggest that whatever the flaws in Boots Riley’s film, it is straightforwardly honest in its attempt to expose several different but connected political issues. This is quite different from the political impact of a ‘branded blockbuster’ which requires critical attention to reveal its possible political discourses. Secondly, Nayman suggests that Sorry to Bother You bears a resemblance to Jordan Peele’s Get Out from 2017 and that certainly did occur to me (Peele was also to be offered the role of Cassius until he had his own big success). These two connections go some way towards explaining why Sorry to Bother You has attracted attention.
In attempting to ‘read’ Sorry to Bother You, I did feel caught between a sense of missing some cultural references (e.g. rap music) but also being sidetracked by other filmic references. Our hero ‘Cash’ starts the film broke and living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist who earns some money as a ‘human billboard’ advertising local businesses. Cash needs a job and is hired by a ‘telemarketing’ company. This explains the title which is the opening line of a standard script for ‘cold calling’. Riley makes the intrusive nature of the business clear by literally throwing Cash into the same frame as the poor unfortunates who answer their phones. Very quickly, Cash learns from an older colleague (played by Danny Glover) that he will be more successful if he uses his ‘white voice’. He also learns that if he shows promise by hitting high sales targets he might be promoted to ‘power caller’ and ascend to the top, exclusive, floor of the building. Meanwhile, references on local TV and billboards to a new social work/housing programme suggest that this is in fact an ‘alternate Oakland’ in which private enterprise is developing a new quasi-fascist system of communal living and working – mostly it seems for African-Americans.
At this point we realise that this isn’t a simple social comedy but some kind of absurdist satire on US capitalism and its dependence on racial divisions. The narrative then has to bring together the telemarketing scam and the work programme and develop Cash’s role as the seeming innocent who will be drawn into the process and will be offered inducements that will persuade him to betray his friends and co-workers. We know that Cash is an intelligent and generally likeable character who could resist, but the lure of riches is strong when you are broke. Riley chooses to develop a plot involving unionisation of the telemarketing drones and Detroit develops a performance piece which savagely critiques the exploitation of African resources and points the finger at US policy and all individuals who buy phones and other technologies dependent on coltan from the Congo (DRC). The stage is set when Cash is promoted and meets the figure behind the work programme (played by Arnie Hammer). At this point the similarity to Get Out becomes apparent.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative but from this brief plot outline it should be clear that Riley is ambitious in his targets and that’s no bad thing. But political satire is very difficult to pull off and the melding of comedy, politics and fantasy is particularly difficult. In the Sight and Sound interview, Riley says that he spent some time with Spike Jonze and Kaleem Aftab the interviewer later suggests that the film is ‘Brechtian’. Pushing together these two sources of ideas about how to present a narrative gives an indication of the problem Riley faces. I’d add a third in that I was reminded of David Cronenberg’s Existenz (Canada 1999) described by some commentators as a ‘science fiction-body horror film’. I might also add that several lesser American independent films flashed briefly across my mind. And for me that is Riley’s biggest problem – a lack of a consistent tone to his film so that it retains its control over an argument. I can see that there is an argument that this very lack of consistency is itself Brechtian, pushing the audience away and making us think about the film’s construction, but I think other elements work against this idea and that overall the narrative is conventional even as it draws on various genre repertoires.
The supporting roles in the film are interesting. The union organiser in the telemarketing company is ‘Squeeze’ played by the Korean-American actor Steven Yeun. I don’t know whether this has any significance in an Oakland context but it does make the multi-racial union of workers a more potent political force. On the other hand, I think that Tessa Thompson as Detroit is under-used apart from her very disturbing performance piece. I thought she was very good in Dear White People (2014) but again under-used in Creed (2015). She’s also featured strongly in a wide range of other major films. Women generally don’t figure strongly in Sorry to Bother You. They are often simply background figures necessary to present a comic sequence (Rosario Dawson is the voice in the lift to the exclusive floor) and that is definitely a weakness. The sense of (in)coherence is my main concern with the film. But perhaps this can be forgiven in a début film? There are enough well-made political points alongside the visual inventiveness and successful comedy scenes plus music performed by the Coup to make this a film to be recommended and to push forward Boots Riley as a filmmaker to look out for in future. It’s an intelligent film and I’ve deliberately not mentioned some of the links to other specific satires to avoid spoilers.
The trailer doesn’t give away everything – which is a relief:
I’ve been prompted by shootings of African-Americans in far too many incidents over the last few years to dig out some notes I used in 2003. The crime investigated in Four Little Girls, the Spike Lee documentary, is also alluded to in Selma, the 2014 film about Martin Luther King. I thought that Spike Lee had lost his way recently with a remake of Oldboy (which I haven’t seen but which seems to have been poorly reviewed) but BlacKkKlansman (US 2018) has confirmed that when he is on form, few American filmmakers have the same power. These notes come from an evening class screening.
Four Little Girls is perhaps a surprising film – a sober and conventional documentary from one of cinema’s angry men with a penchant for stylistically daring feature films. But the concerns of the film are in no way surprising, comprising a powerful argument for a rewriting of American history.
Spike Lee and the history of Black America
By naming his own production company ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks’, Spike Lee set out his mission from his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. The company name refers to the promise made to freed slaves at the end of the Civil War – a promise never kept that Lee wants to remind us about.
Most of Lee’s films have been about the experience of African-Americans in contemporary society. Some have been overtly ‘political’ in attempting to reassess the importance of historical figures such as Malcolm X or to validate contemporary struggles such as the ‘Million Man March’ celebrated in Get on the Bus (1996). Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled is a calculated attempt to tell the story of racism in film and television, linking contemporary debates about African-American culture to the hidden history of exploitation stemming from the minstrel shows of the early nineteenth century. Bamboozled was also notable for its audacious use of digital video and contrasting celluloid stock (to distinguish the ‘real’ life of the performers and their ‘minstrel performances’) and its satirical take on the American television industry. By contrast, in Four Little Girls Lee takes a civil outrage and personal tragedy that happened in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 – the firebombing of a church and the death of four little girls – and uses it to explore the embedded institutional racism that ran through American life, seemingly with impunity, before the struggles of the Civil Rights movement offered hope for a better future.
As a voice for Black America on screen, Spike Lee has been controversial not just as a director but also as cultural critic, not least in his attacks on Steven Spielberg for his ‘black’ projects, the adaptation of The Color Purple and the historical film Amistad. Lee’s anger always creates expectations about how he will tackle his own projects.
The documentary form
Lee used two of his long term collaborators, editor Sam Pollard and composer Terence Blanchard, to achieve the aesthetic he wanted for Four Little Girls. This was his first film with Ellen Kuras as cinematographer and she has since become a regular on Lee’s productions. What this group produced is a documentary film using several familiar sources – archive film footage, rostrum camera work (panning and zooming across still images) and ‘witness interviews’ with both the families of the girls and the representatives of the Birmingham authorities.
The ‘witness documentary’ gained a high profile in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s with notable films such as The Wobblies (US 1979) (about the ‘International Workers of the World’) and Rosie the Riveter (1980) exploring the experiences of women in work during World War II. The use of music and rostrum camera to recreate scenes from American history was particularly successful (i.e. critically and with audiences) in the case of the Ken Burns’ series on the Civil War broadcast on US public service television (PBS) in 1990.
American television has developed a tradition of screening prestigious documentaries ever since the ‘Direct Cinema’ films of Robert Drew and his associates such as D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock in the 1960s demonstrated the attraction of ‘real’ images on the small screen. It is worth noting therefore that Four Little Girls was co-produced and distributed by the cable television giant Home Box Office. Although the film screened briefly in selected cinemas, its main impact has been via television where arguably it will have made more impact in educating Americans about their own social history.
Documentary and representations of social reality
Four Little Girls immediately raises the question – is documentary the most appropriate and effective way in which the ‘real world’ can be represented on the screen? How can documentary be used to create the drama which in Hollywood involves the general audience? Can documentary film really ‘educate’ an audience? These questions must certainly have been at the centre of the discussions between Spike Lee and Sam Pollard. The effectiveness of Four Little Girls in this respect is explored in this review:
There is a defining moment in Spike Lee and Sam Pollard’s Academy Award-nominated 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which ended the lives of four girls. This moment provides a bridge between the legendary and near mythical status of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the intimate and very human reality of the individual men and women who were involved in it: “When young people today ask me, ‘When are we going to be able to get together like you all were in the Sixties?’ – I tell them nobody was together in the Sixties,” says Reverend Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC). “It was a small group of dedicated people who got it all started.”
For Pollard, the co-producer and editor of the film who will be present in Austin to introduce it during its Texas Documentary Tour screening this Wednesday, this represented the bridging approach that he and Lee were adamant on taking toward their subject matter. “It was important, first of all, to make sure the four girls came alive in the telling of the story. And the second thing was to make sure there was a social and political context for their existence. So we decided to use a parallel structure to tell the stories of the girls in juxtaposition to the evolution of the civil rights struggle as was specifically particular to Birmingham.”
And for a younger generation whose knowledge of the civil rights struggle comes primarily from history textbooks, this micro-analysis of the nuts and bolts of the battle-like process is a refreshing revelation, indeed. It is the storytelling strategy and its respect for the engrossing real-life events that gives the film its potency, and this reflects Pollard’s extensive bicameral experience in the film business. A filmmaker for over 25 years, he worked primarily in the documentary field (including serving as producer on the acclaimed PBS series Eyes on the Prize) before becoming Spike Lee’s editor on such narrative features such as Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Clockers, and Girl 6. His expertise in both fields is evidenced by one particularly powerful interview with George Wallace. Using such narrative devices as jump cuts, different film stocks, and varying focal lengths, the scene cuts to the heart of the horror of George Wallace and everything he stood for in a little more than a minute of screen time. It represents a penultimate example of the fusion of high drama and documentary.
Despite the fact that they were conducted 23 years after the fact, the interviews with the four girls’ family members contain a startling immediacy. And each individual reflects back on the events with a remarkable bearing of both internal fortitude and grace that, despite all of the hate and chaotic insanity directed toward them, comes with the self-awareness of their moral certainty and rightness in the face of evil. Unlike the racist forces aligned against them, “They didn’t have a pathology,” explains Pollard. “They didn’t walk around thinking ‘We need to figure out a way to hate white people as much as they hate us.’ They understood the parameters of what their existence was all about and they figured out how to be real human beings and live and struggle within that.” Tommy Wren of the SCLC sums it up best in the film: “I used to be afraid of ‘Bull’ Connor [the malevolent Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham at the time who lead police attacks against marchers] until I discovered he was crazy.”
It was also the family members’ sense of moral rightness that led them to protect their story for as long as they did. Christopher McNair, father of one of the slain girls and something of the keeper of the story, had been approached many times over the years by filmmakers and authors who wanted him to lend his support and input to their projects. “Chris has a great reputation with and the respect of the community, and he was not going to have a filmmaker come there and exploit the family or their story,” says Pollard. “He finally agreed to cooperate with us and with his involvement, although there was some initial reluctance on the part of the other families, they too came around and opened up to Spike and me.” And it is our good fortune they did open up for a film that not only provides a further detailed historical account of events that still have significant relevance today (especially in light of the recent spate of bombings of African- American churches across the South), but also uncovers a gripping drama of human loss, tragedy, and redemption.
Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle, 04-06-98
Roy Stafford, 30 January 2003
Here’s an interview with Spike Lee and journalist Howell Raines about the background to the making of the film. It’s quite long, but I hope worthwhile.
The Vue at Leeds Light refused to sell me a ticket for the film showing I wanted as it had ‘gone from their computer’. Given that they regularly run 20 minutes of ads, I don’t think it was unreasonable to ask for a ticket 20 minutes after the recognised start time. Later I realised that I could have bought a ticket for any screening and then switched auditorium. To be fair the tickets are only £4.99 so I plonked a fiver down for my second choice, Night School. I chose it on the reasonable grounds that I’d enjoyed Girls Trip directed by Malcolm D. Lee and starring Tiffany Haddish and the two are together again in Night School. The real star of the film is, however, Kevin Hart, who I knew much less about – OK, nothing at all. My research reveals that he has been a very busy stand-up and film and TV comedian/comic actor who on this film is also a writer and producer. I don’t watch US TV or mainstream films, otherwise he would be very familiar. Comments on Night School from critics and audiences suggest that most of Hart’s antics in this film have been seen before. The ratings for the film are generally low but it has still made a lot of money – $84 million at the time of writing, with the UK and Australia as major overseas markets.
I enjoyed the film but I feel it has one major weakness – it’s far too long at 111 minutes and could lose 10 to 20 minutes quite easily. The problem is in the opening sequence which takes too long to introduce the narrative disruption – and therefore delays getting into what is essentially the ensemble piece which makes the film work. As various commentators have pointed out the film attempts to meld two different but connected narratives. The first sees Teddy (Kevin Hart) as a successful salesman who has wooed a beautiful and highly successful interior designer to whom he is about to propose, but in the process he has put himself into severe financial difficulties. When disaster strikes Teddy finds himself in debt, with no job and no chance of getting another because he left school without qualifications and now he can’t get the high-powered job he needs without passing a GED test (which employers will accept as an alternative to a high school diploma). To get this he decides to go to night school – at the same high school he attended twenty years earlier. The narrative about his romance and the one about his learning difficulties with formal tests don’t really fit together. The night school introduces Tiffany Haddish as Teddy’s teacher and a varied group of misfits as his classmates. There is even a pantomime villain in the form of the school principal who Teddy insulted when they were high school students together.
The night school story seems to me to be well-written and sometimes very funny. It’s a familiar generic narrative but Hart and Haddish and the others make it work. The ‘second chance’ that night school offers easily fits the Hollywood dream promise. Interestingly, although this is an African-American film, the night school student group comprises three white and three black students and one Latino (the story is set in Atlanta). The students are there for different reasons (including one in prison doing the course via Skype). Tiffany Haddish plays quite a different role from the party girl in Girls Trip, although she does get at least one action sequence.
What struck me most of all was that this film is in many ways quite old-fashioned and draws on decades of similar comedian-led narrative escapades in which the hapless central character works hard and is defeated many times, but eventually succeeds, wins the ‘girl’ and defeats the authority figure (here the school principal). Kevin Hart is short (with a high-pitched voice when his fears are exposed), but he offers a character who is ‘smart’ and attractive on the outside but damaged by a sense of failure beneath. That’s perhaps the modern aspect of the narrative – otherwise it seems to me very familiar from the comedy vehicles of my childhood, the films of Norman Wisdom in the UK in the 1950s and early 1960s that were massively popular.
I was going to add the trailer for the film, but it includes many of the jokes and ‘explains’ the whole film in ways that mean that you may feel that you don’t need to see it. It undersells itself. Why can’t Hollywood make trailers? Still, I think Night School confirms the promise of Girls Trip in showing that African-American cinema can justify a wide release in the UK – and that’s no bad thing.