In Conversation with Daniel Kaluuya and Melina Matsoukas: 'This isn't a Black Bonnie and Clyde film—our stories are singular, they're ours.'
'Queen and Slim' lands in South Africa.
Melina Matsoukas and Daniel Kaluuya are everything their surroundings at the opulent Saxon Hotel are not—down-to-earth and even comedic at times. Despite the harsh lights and cameras constantly in their faces, they joke around and make the space inviting. They're also eager to know and pronounce the names of everyone they meet correctly. "It's Rufaro with an 'R'? Is that how you say it?" Kaluuya asks me as he shakes my hand.
Matsoukas, a two-time Grammy award winning director and Kaluuya, an A-list actor who's starred in massive titles including Black Panther and Get Out, have every reason to be boastful about their achievements and yet instead, they're relatable.
The duo is in South Africa to promote their recent film Queen Slim which is hitting theaters today and follows the eventful lives of a Black couple on the run after killing a police officer. It's a film steeped in complexity and layered themes to do with racism, police brutality and of course Black love.
We caught up with both of them to talk about just what it took from each of them to bring the powerful story to the big screen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Just looking at some of the roles that you've played in "Black Panther" and "Get Out", in what ways did you have to dig deep to play Slim?
Daniel: I had to dig deep in the sense that he's a man that's very content. And I think you rarely see those kinds of characters being the focal point of dramas. I had to go really away from myself and go, "What do you mean you just want a family and want to stay in the same town you grew up in? Don't you want to explore? Don't you want to see this? Don't you want to see that? Don't you want to try to do this?"
And so I had to really look at that in myself and create an inner conflict for him that made him still dynamic but didn't take away from his integrity of being happy and honest with who he is and being very vulnerable in a really strong way. It was a real challenge for me.
This story of "revolutionary" cop killers is set against the backdrop of the real-life and volatile relationship between the Black community and police officers in the States. How difficult was it to portray that on-screen for you as a director?
Melina: It wasn't difficult because I just leaned on authenticity and our reality. It's something that I think we all can relate to in different ways. I've had my own experiences with police brutality. Daniel has as well. So I felt like as long as I lean into the reality of how we walk through life as black people, and it was honest, I had succeeded in authentically betraying that experience and wanting to put audiences of all colors in that moment and what it feels like as a black person when you hear that siren behind you and you don't know if you're going to survive that situation. So it wasn't difficult because I just was able to lean on our history, sadly.
Would you say it was much easier to tell that story through the lens of Black love?
Melina: Yeah, I mean that was our healing. I feel like even in times of suffering, we've always found ways to have joy and have love and connections. I love that balance. That speaks to the Black experience quite honestly. I try to create work that reflects that. We don't just live one way. We also speak to the Black resilience and how we're unconquered and that love will always shine through. And we'll always find a way to find that love.
I haven't seen that type of Black love story represented on screen, especially between two dark-skinned people trying to redefine what it is for two Black people to be in love when so much history has tried to tear us apart.
Representation in film matters to you quite a lot. Do you feel this particular movie captured the love story between dark-skinned Black people in the way that you had intended from the very beginning?
Melina: I don't know if I ever have a true intention. It always evolves, right? You go in one way and you're like, oh, I see it like this. But you have to also accept the magic that happens on set and edit and the entire process. Honestly, it became much more than I ever imagined or intended. And they took it to levels that I couldn't have dreamt of.
So it was just working with both of them and seeing that connection and how that translated on screen, it was really beautiful. It felt like something I hadn't experienced and that I've so needed as an audience member and I wish I had growing up. And then there was just a real joy in that artistry.
Would you say your perspective on the relationship between Black people and law enforcement has shifted in any way after playing the role of Slim?
Daniel: No. When I see a script, that's emotion. I don't know, it speaks to me. It's not like, strategically I'm going to do this or do that. It's like yo, this is a perspective that I feel and that people around me feel, but it's not out there, do you know what I'm saying? And I was like I just want to show that.
I have seen those perspectives in life. Whether it's Uncle Earl or it's Bertrand's character, whether it's Queen, whether it's the mechanic. I know those people. For me it was a blessing to be able to present it and to be part of it. I intimately understand it from my perspective of what the relationship is with the police.
Did anything surprise you in the process of playing Slim?
Daniel: I wouldn't say it was a surprise, but I did feel for me what really came to the fore was mental health. And it's little nuances that people don't even realize like when Slim asks Queen a question and then she goes, "I'm okay, I'm good." I said, "You answered too fast." And then later on in the bed she asks him if he's okay and he's like, "Yeah." So he answers too quick too. And he's not okay.
You don't have the luxury and the privilege to really reflect, to have the emotions you have. What are we going to do about it? We got to act.
And then there's this huge delay, especially for Black men, in actually confronting your emotions. I think it really spoke to me that he doesn't cry until the end. And I don't want to spoil it, but at the end when he cries, it's a build-up of all this. This is tough and he just allows himself to feel. And I feel that element of it surprised me. Even at the gas station. For me, he's really toying with suicide. For me, that's how I played it. It was like, "Maybe I deserve to die." He articulates it in the bed but he acts on it at the gas station.
He's in a situation, he's a hostage to a perspective. And so that element of it was like, oh that's really interesting to me that you can present that, especially with Black men and especially with Slim and Uncle Earl being parallels of how they deal with their emotional self. One man is getting drunk and hitting women and one man that doesn't drink at all and says what he feels, but is still dealing with stuff.
Some people have described the film as the "Black version" of Bonnie and Clyde. And while there might be some parallels and truth to that, do you feel that sort of comparison risks an oversimplification of the layered themes in the film?
Melina: Yeah, absolutely. I try to stay away from any White archetypes to describe our stories. I think one of the characters uses that description because he is a simple person and Queen is really upset at that because they're not criminals. These are two people in love who are fighting for their lives and fighting for survival. And I hate Hollywood's tendency to always have to compare us to some other White narrative in order for it to make sense.
"We can just be our own because our stories are singular, they're ours."
In the scene where Queen is shot, is it deliberate that the White female officer shoots Queen?
Melina: Every decision was intentional in this film. It was really intentional that a White woman shoots Queen because it also speaks to the betrayal of gender. And how so many White women choose their race over their gender and that comradery. So we really wanted to speak to that. The majority of White women voted for Trump in our country even though that absolutely doesn't benefit them. But they chose their own bigotry over a smart choice.
What do you hope this particular movie will shed light on that hasn't already been brought to the fore?
Melina: I really want audiences to reflect on themselves and their own thinking. I don't want to tell somebody what they should think. I just want to, like Daniel said, present the world in which we live authentically and truly. And hopefully that creates some empathy. And I think some dialogue for the world that we've created and how some people are forced to walk through it.