Lena Waithe On 'Queen And Slim,' A Black Lives Matter Odyssey The screenwriter's new movie is about a black couple who shoot a white police officer in self-defense during a routine traffic stop. Their ensuing flight, she says, is a "meditation on blackness."
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Lena Waithe's 'Queen & Slim' Is An Odyssey For The Black Lives Matter Era

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

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

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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")

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