Jodie Turner-Smith runs her fingers through her reddish brown, low-cropped fro and smiles through the Louisiana heat. Shooting for her first feature film, Queen & Slim, has taken her from the freezing polar vortex of Ohio to the outskirts of New Orleans. A tiger-striped dress clings to her lithe frame revealing a bandage tied around her thigh. The late February sun has just hit its peak in the sky, but it looks like she’s already had a really long day. She’s pleasant and engaged, but the trauma of her character, Queen, is still visible in her eyes.
TV watchers may know Jodie as the genetically enhanced first officer, Melantha Jhirl, from Syfy’s space odyssey, Nightflyers. When word first got out about a “Black Bonnie & Clyde” film being produced by Lena Waithe and directed by Melina Matsoukas (the gifted eye behind Beyonce’s “Formation” and Nike’s “Equality” campaign) she made it a point to get an audition.
In the script written by Lena Waithe and based on an original idea by bestselling author James Frey, Queen is a defense attorney who goes on a date with Daniel Kaluuya’s (Get Out, Black Panther) working-class character, Slim, and things go from bad to worse as the couple find themselves on a very unforeseen road trip.
“Queen goes on this date as kind of this moment of ‘I just need to get out and have some connection with somebody.’ She’s not close to anyone,” she explains when asked how a lawyer wound up on a Tinder date with a guy who works in retail. “She’s coming out of losing a case in this really negative head space and wanting to reach out to someone. And so, she turns to Tinder. And once getting there, it’s like expectations verses reality. I saw this picture and was kind of intrigued by this person who I kind of saw a sadness in that was sort of like in myself. Then you turn up for the date and it’s like, ‘Mmmmm, why did I decide to go on this?’ He works at Costco. We’re just so different. You know? And I’m like, maybe this wasn’t the best thing to do, so let’s just wrap it up and go home. And then, famous last words I guess…”
While driving home, a routine traffic stop escalates into a homicide when Slim kills the officer in self-defense. Queen immediately goes into lawyer mode, noting that Ohio imposes the death penalty for harming or shooting an officer in the line of duty, so they flee. Worse yet, the killing is captured on video and goes viral, making the two fugitives very easy to spot. Along the way the two strangers forge new bonds tempered by the heat of their shared dilemma. Everything about themselves becomes challenged under duress, making for compelling drama. Waithe considers Queen to be the Malcolm X to Slim’s Martin Luther King Jr.
“She’s never said that to me but now that you say that, wow, absolutely,” Jodie says with a nod, citing that even her hair is modeled after Denzel in the Spike Lee biopic of the civil rights hero. “Queen is more militant. She has structured her whole life around this fight…seeing what has been happening to Black men and Black women but just how the criminal justice system is structured. In my mind, Queen is more of an Angela Davis kind of character. But [with] that militancy of Malcolm X, definitely. While Slim is more peaceful. In that sense, it’s a very broad parallel in that way, but we have two sort of different methods of dealing with it. I’ve used my education to get myself to this place where I can fight the system and speak out against the system. I can speak truth to power. Where his methods are a little bit more subdued and different. By the end, Dr. King was very on his Malcolm, too.”
Daniel concurs, adding, “As characters I completely understand. I can’t say too much [but what if] Martin is forced to be violent for some reason, how does he feel about himself and what violence is now? Racism makes you fucking mad.”
Queen & Slim has the potential to be a watershed moment in exploring modern love for Black men and women that doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Can we honestly begin to parse the efforts of finding love and companionship without factoring in the effects of racism? The closed quarters of a 1973 Pontiac Catallina and the open road offer a unique opportunity for Queen and Slim to sit with each other’s words and feelings free of distractions. It can feel like a prison or a sanctuary.
“I think there is an element of claustrophobia to it...these two people end up getting handcuffed together, essentially. So, you’re sitting in a car and whatever you feel and think, you cannot with your body express all of that…These two people get trapped in this car together and you almost want to kill the other person, because this is not how you thought this was gonna go. But at the same time, you need each other.”
Queen & Slim won’t be released in theaters until Thanksgiving weekend, November 27, 2019, but keep checking back to BET.com for more of our interviews from the set.
Photo Credit: Andre D. Wagner/Universal Pictures