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With ‘Queen & Slim,’ Lena Waithe brings another piece of herself to the screen

Her new film is a meditation on black love and what it means to matter in the world

Lena Waithe writes what she knows.

We see a nugget of her life — only a nugget, mind you, although an important one — in the new film, Queen & Slim, which opens Wednesday. It’s probably better to call it a relatable quality that really gets to the crux of this unlikely romantic caper about two strangers on a first date gone horrific.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) meet on a dating app. They have a lackluster first dinner. They get stopped by a cop and things escalate quickly. One of them accidentally kills the cop in self-defense. They go on the run. The police camera footage is released. They become martyrs.

The idea was initially presented to her by writer James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces. Frey cornered Waithe at a Hollywood Reporter party where her then-fiancee (now wife), Alana Mayo, a production executive, was being celebrated.

“I have an idea for a movie that I can’t write,” she said he told her.

Waithe, a scriptwriter/actress/producer who created Showtime’s The Chi, listened. And her ears perked up.

“I was like, ‘Wow, OK, great. You can’t write that,’ ” she told him after hearing the idea of two black people killing a cop in self-defense and going on the lam. “ ‘But I think I can.’

“He had an outline and a title and I was like, ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I want to do away with the outline. I want to do away with the title, and I just want to take that feed and, like, run with it.’ And I was like, ‘Look, I’m a fair person. I would share storyline credit with you, but I want to just write the thing and do my thing with it.’ He was like, ‘Fair enough, have at it.’ ”

Waithe said she wanted it to be an odyssey about blackness, a meditation on black love and what it means to matter in the world. She wanted a reverse Underground Railroad story, to follow her characters from the North to the South as they tried to keep safe while being hunted.

“Do you have to bend the world to matter or can you just exist in it?” she said she asked herself. “And it was also just about what we celebrate when it comes to blackness: our lives versus our deaths. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are my North Stars. She would be more like Malcolm X. He would be more like MLK. And by the end of it, that they would have swapped places.”

And that’s where she found her own connection.

“The things that I was ruminating on — because I am a public person — I think that whole thing of just becoming something that they didn’t realize. People projecting something onto them for them just being themselves was the thing that I really related to,” she said. “I became this cultural figure just by being gay and black and proud of it.”

Writers Aziz Ansari (left) and Lena Waithe (right) accept the outstanding writing for a comedy series award for Master of None during the 69th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on Sept. 17, 2017, in Los Angeles.

Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage

In 2017, Waithe became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedic writing for the “Thanksgiving” episode on Netflix’s Master of None. The story chronicled her own coming-out story, and she was encouraged to write it by series creators Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari.

The episode was directed by Melina Matsoukas, who has earned Grammy and MTV Music Video awards for music videos she’s directed for artists such as Beyoncé and Rihanna.

“She entrusted me with her very personal story. It was a story of a black lesbian coming out on television. And it was a historic moment. I knew we hadn’t seen that before and I knew I had to be a part of it. She entrusted me with that and we really grew to formulate a really trusting relationship,” Matsoukas says now.

While they were working on that episode, Waithe mentioned that she was working on Queen & Slim and asked whether Matsoukas would be interested in directing her first feature film. Matsoukas kindly told her she wouldn’t commit to a thing until Waithe was done with the script.

“I only want to be moved by the words, and I never want my relationships to dictate the work that I commit myself to,” Matsoukas said.

It was worth the wait.

“It was so provocative, it was really political. It had something to say. And it was this beautiful love story at the same time. It was just also a great piece of cinema and really entertaining,” said Matsoukas.

Matsoukas found the story to be gripping. And unlike anything she’d seen before — a love story with two black leads set against a contemporary backdrop of racial strife and political unrest.

“I hadn’t seen two dark-skinned people fall in love on screen, or be represented in this way, in such layers and nuances. I haven’t seen a genre-bending love story where black people are in it,” she said. “Like we don’t really live in one space. When people are like, ‘Oh, what kind of film is this?’ It’s hard for me to answer that. Because we aren’t one genre. It starts out as a rom-com and it immediately quickly moves into a horror story. And then it becomes this beautiful dramatic love story that has a lot of comedy in it as well. And I feel like it’s a true reflection of how we experience life and all the different spaces that we have to live in.”

It’s “about what we celebrate when it comes to blackness: our lives versus our deaths.”

That’s exactly why Daniel Kaluuya wanted to be part of it. Waithe jokes that the Oscar-nominated actor (Get Out) cast himself in the film after having read her script.

“You just rarely see people handling really serious issues in such a joyous, loving, caring, humorous way. It was simple. It’s one of those ideas, because why didn’t anyone else think of it?” he said.

Kaluuya first met Waithe at a screening of Get Out, which was released in 2017, the same year Waithe collected her Emmy. He’d recently read the pilot for The Chi and marveled at how talented she was. “I prayed that she was the same person writing that was in Master of None,” he said. “When I saw her, I came up to her. I was just like, ‘Listen, I think you’re really talented,’ and then she was like, ‘Wicked, wicked, wicked.’ Then, she brought this idea based on Bonnie and Clyde. I said, ‘Wow. That voice on a Bonnie and Clyde narrative? I would want to read that.’ ”

It’s the way that she tells the story of black folks that he finds so captivating.

“When I read that episode of The Chi, I just knew that’s not common. It’s not common to have that tone in that environment where everyone would make it really heavy-handed and really depressing. She has a tone that’s light, humorous, and joyous, amongst that, because she actually enjoys the people that she’s writing about,” Kaluuya said.

From left to right: Lena Waithe, Janelle Monae and Melina Matsoukas attend the Queen & Slim premiere at AFI Fest 2019 at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Nov. 14 in Hollywood.

Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AFI

In Queen & Slim, Waithe introduces us to two civilians who choose to survive despite impossible odds. The whole country is looking for two black cop killers who may or may not be hiding in plain sight?

Well, that’s a thing.

“I just couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done before. You know, that we would be the first who were to show black people killing cops,” Waithe said. “But also, I couldn’t have imagined that, from when I wrote the script a couple of years ago, that the situation would become worse. I keep saying, when I hear about black people being killed in their homes by police officers — in the comfort of their homes — this is publicity I do not want for this movie. It’s so scary how much more relevant the script has become. And my mission is to humanize black people as much as possible because there’s nothing I love more than us. I love black people unconditionally. And I want us to live long and victorious lives.

“I think everything I sit down to write is sort of that. Even if it’s something light, like Thanksgiving. It was me healing a wound a little bit with that episode. And I think people kind of could feel it a little bit,” she said. “I’m laying myself very raw and bare. And so the reception to me is not just about, ‘Oh, critical acclaim,’ but it’s more about, ‘Oh, you’re seeing me, but in looking at me and my stuff, you’re seeing yourself.’ ”

This isn’t just entertainment for her. It’s so much more.

“When you get held up and someone has a gun to your head, the advice people give is for you to tell them something personal about yourself. So that way they, then, are less likely to kill you. So I want to make black people as personal as I possibly can, so that way they stop killing us,” she said.

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.