Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The film asks you to believe that an African American couple fleeing police would have a better shot at freedom in the Deep South than in the North. Here's why.
This story contains spoilers for Queen & Slim.
The film Queen & Slim arrives at a moment when discussions of police violence, sanctuary, and public space are in frequent collision. On its face, this is a True Romance-like flick about star-crossed fugitives; it’s also been billed as an update of the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, but that comparison doesn’t stick. Bonnie and Clyde was about a couple on the run—a joyride, actually—for breaking the law; Queen and Slim is about a couple on the run because the law broke them.
Here’s what that means: The film, the first full-length feature from director Melina Matsoukas (who was one of the filmmakers behind Beyonce’s Lemonade), revolves around an African American man and woman (their real names go unrevealed until the end, but they’re the “Queen” and “Slim” of the title) who, after a Tinder first-date, become involved in the shooting death of a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio. Slim, played by Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), shoots the cop in response to—actually, it doesn’t matter what he was responding to. He’s a black man who just killed a cop in the city that refused to indict the police officer who killed the 12-year-old black boy Tamir Rice—in fact, declared that it was “objectively reasonable” to kill him. Queen, played by Jodie Turner-Smith (Nightflyers), is a criminal defense attorney who failed to save one of her clients in a death penalty case earlier that day.
Rather than face the state legal system, the couple take off, fleeing Ohio by car to New Orleans where Queen hopes her uncle will be able to help them. The narrative unfolds along their getaway journey, a mostly joyless ride for our protagonists. For this plot trajectory, Lena Waithe, the film’s lead writer and co-producer, asks the audience to accept something counterintuitive, if not counter-historical: That a black couple wanted for one of the gravest crimes would have a better shot at freedom by escaping to the Deep South than they would before a judge and jury in the North.
They could have elected to break for Canada, right across Lake Erie, or even headed West. Their decision, instead, to go down South would have befuddled someone like Harriet Tubman, the once-enslaved black woman who helped steer hundreds of black people north to freedom in the mid-1800s (and who has her own movie in theaters right now).
But the reasons for escaping to the South in 21st-century America are not as confusing when taking into account that this route tracks with the real-life migratory patterns of African American families over the last 30 years. It’s a “reverse migration” that has sent black families back to the former Confederate states from which previous generations fled, where they’ve been increasingly developing more majority-black cities and spaces. And there’s one particular scene in Queen & Slim that brings that grand return-to-sender pattern sharply into focus.
The scene takes place about half way through the movie at a blues juke joint in Mississippi where Queen and Slim, weary from the lam, steal a moment to enjoy the fact that they’re still alive. Inside, it’s a sweatbox. Blues legend Little Freddie King is molesting a guitar and mic on a small stage that respects no boundaries with the dance floor in front of it, or the people freaking each other in it. The dim lighting, save for the occasional red beams from neon beer signs, makes it difficult to make out faces, and yet everyone in the place seems to know who’s in the house. It’s a proudly seedy establishment that shamelessly indulges black fugitivity (we’ll get to what this means in a moment). The bar patrons recognize our protagonists, who’ve become causes célèbres over the course of their getaway, but don’t swarm them.
When Slim goes to buy drinks, the bartender tells him the drinks are on the house; she tells him she knows who they are, but assures them that they’re safe in here. As Slim scans the interior, the other patrons give him the slightest nods and gazes to code their solidarity. This scene encapsulates why African Americans still need exclusive black spaces like this—places where white and even non-black people of color aren’t readily free to roam or access.
At a time when black people are getting killed while sitting and sleeping in their cars, in their churches, and even in their own homes by police, such sanctuaries are becoming harder to come by. Sanctuary in this sense doesn’t just mean a place for black suspects to hide out, but rather sanctuary from being generally viewed with suspicion, just for being black. In the past few years we’ve seen white people call the cops on African Americans for having barbecues in public parks, sitting in cafes, selling water on the sidewalk, sleeping outside their dorms, and mowing the lawn. There have been increases in nuisance police calls and quality-of-life codes enforcement against African Americans in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Black people are running out of places where they can be free and comfortable in their own skin—quite similar to conditions for Latino Americans under current restrictive immigration enforcement, and for Muslim Americans under current anti-terrorist laws. In many gentrifying urban neighborhoods, it’s the black-owned bars, jazz lounges, barber shops, and jitney stations that are often the first establishments to get uprooted. They are viewed as unsightly, moribund properties that breed crime and fugitivity (hold on, we’re getting there).
Meanwhile, the juke joints that were once plentiful across the South are now endangered, if not nearly extinct. This is not just a Deep South erasure: There are no more go-go clubs in Washington, D.C. (though the culture lives on); there’s no Crawford Grill in Pittsburgh and no Lenox Lounge and St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem.
The juke joint Queen and Slim visit is called “The Underground” —an unsubtle reference to the Underground Railroad network that was used during slavery to shuttle and negotiate the enslaved to freedom. Waithe told OprahMag.com that she saw her story as a “reverse slave escape narrative” taking place on “the modern day Underground Railroad,” this one spanning the South. Even the film’s Cleveland starting point was intentionally chosen for its place as one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad before reaching Canada.
This is yet another narrative parallel to the Harriet Tubman story, even if, again, the respective refugees journeyed in opposing directions to freedom. But the common denominator for Tubman and Waithe’s protagonists is—here we are—their black fugitivity.
That’s “a refusal of those catalogued … to be completely captured or reduced to the archival grammar of criminality or the seriality of type,” according to Tina Campt, a black feminist theorist of visual culture and contemporary art. Damien M. Sojoyner, urban anthropologist and professor at the University of California, Irvine, defines it as a “disavowal of and disengagement from state-governed projects that attempt to adjudicate normative constructions of difference through liberal tropes of freedom and democratic belonging.” And in his book Stolen Life, the inimitable poet and social theorist Fred Moten, a black studies and literature professor at the University of California, Riverside, uses the term to describe “a desire for and a spirit of escape and transgression of the proper and the proposed.”
Waithe’s protagonists and storyline adds flesh and breathes soul into these academic notions of black fugitivity. If you must know, Slim kills the Cleveland officer in self defense, after the cop shoots Queen in the leg for trying to record his harassment of them on her cellphone; this is what triggers their flight. Why this doesn’t matter is that American history rejects the idea that there can be any objectively reasonable explanation for why a black person has killed a cop.
The Fugitive Slave Act of Tubman’s day authorized slave catchers from the south to apprehend and extradite escaped formerly enslaved people in the North, which made the free state of Ohio in some ways indistinguishable from Louisiana: In both places, blackness itself was rendered fugitive and illegal. This is the context for the welcoming message that The Underground’s bartender gave to Slim: They see all of us as existing outside of the law, so you might as well make yourself at home here.
Outside of the juke joint, Queen and Slim are back in hostile territory. At every stop along their journey—Queen’s uncle’s house in New Orleans, an auto mechanic in Mississippi, a family friend’s house in Georgia, a small airport in Monroe County, Florida—our protagonists face the danger that the police could show up or be summoned at any second. It is nearly impossible for them to know who to trust, and skin color alone is no indication: A white couple hides them from police; a black civilian turns them in to collect a bounty.
That juke joint is literally the only place they encounter that offers them true safety and security. Such black spaces are perhaps the last standing monuments of the Deep South that pay no reverence to the heritage enshrined in the region’s ubiquitous Lost Cause memorials. Instead, they honor the Lost Cause’s exiles.