Lena Waithe become the first Black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the incredibly personal “Thanksgiving” episode of Netflix’s Master of None. After that, she became one of the most sought-after writers in Hollywood. In the two years since, she created her first television show with The Chi and appeared in a handful of projects from Ready Player One to the upcoming season of Westworld.
Now the acclaimed storyteller breaks new ground with her first feature film Queen & Slim. She reunites with her “Thanksgiving” director Melina Matsoukas to tell the story of the titular leads on a first date that takes an unexpected turn after shooting a racist cop following an escalated traffic stop. The film is incredibly relevant, speaking directly to the experience of police brutality and the modern power of social media political movements. At its core, Waithe tells a very personal story of two people.
Speaking with Awards Daily, Waithe detailed her experience bringing Queen & Slim to the big screen, a story that had just about every studio in town clambering to get their hands on. In fact, her feature debut was in such high demand that Waithe was able to negotiate just about every tool she and Matsoukas needed to make the film the product of their sole voices without the pressure of outside voices.
Awards Daily: How did you come up with the idea to turn this into a screenplay?
Lena Waithe: James Frey came up to me at a Hollywood Reporter party with this idea for a movie about two black people who were pulled over by a police officer but instead of them dying they killed him in self-defense and got back in their car and went on the run. I found it really interesting and he admitted that he couldn’t tell that story because it wasn’t his to tell. I was like “Yeah you’re right, it’s mine but I’d like to take it and write the script.”
He had an outline and a title, but I didn’t want any of that. All I wanted was this little nugget, but I wanted to be fair and share a story credit. He planted the seed but I just needed to do my thing and go for it. That’s how Queen & Slim was born. I’ve seen a lot of inaccuracies online with articles about he co-wrote the film with me, and I found it offensive that some would think I needed a white man to tell this story.
AD: What about this story made you want to turn it into your first feature?
LW: This immediately felt like a film. I always ask myself that question with new ideas of how to best tell the story and it was obviously a film. It was a road trip film. It’s a two-hander. I never sat around looking for the idea for my first film I was just inspired. The only strategy that I have is to work on things that I’m passionate about and obsessed with because that’s the only way that’s going to keep me going. The other thing is that you live with these projects for years so you have to really be obsessed with the thing.
For me that idea was just bubbling with so much opportunity to write about Blackness, to write about unity, to write about love, to write familial trauma, to write about everything. To be able to use it all as a battle cry but also as a diary, to be strong, to be vulnerable, to be brave, it was an opportunity to tackle so many different things.
AD: In this industry we tend to use previous projects as a kind of shorthand to talk about new art. Queen & Slim has been endlessly compared to a lot of films most notably Bonnie & Clyde and Thelma & Louise. Do you agree with those comparisons?
LW: I think it’s a natural thing for the industry when there is a Black story to ask “but what’s a white story that this is like. How can we relate to it?” Anyone who has seen the film knows that Bonnie & Clyde is not the best comparison to the film, but I get it’s a specific one and it’s an easy one. But the truth is that this film is a meditation on blackness, something I have been meditating on my whole life. I understand people wanting to be able to wrap their brains around it, but I really think they should look at it as something new, something fresh, something different, something bold. I’m inspired by black people more than anyone else, and if I’m going to compare it to anything, I would say Set It Off is more of a reference than Bonnie & Clyde.
AD: At its core Queen & Slim is a very personal story about these two characters who think they’re on their first date and then their lives drastically change forever. Then there’s the other aspect of the film about the unintended consequences that shatter across America turning them into national icons. What was it like as a writer balancing these two aspects of the story?
LW: It was difficult and probably the hardest aspect of the writing process. How do I create this intimate story where I don’t cut away from them but also understand that they’re becoming these cultural icons? The Wizard of Oz is also a major influence and one of my favorite movies talking about all the people they meet along the way. There are all these different influences that I tried to use in this balancing act as I tried out different ideas. I tried cutting away to people’s living rooms as they were talking about them before realizing that wasn’t smart. I wanted to stay with them, continue living with them, I want to listen to them. I want the audience to be stuck in the car with them. It wasn’t easy but we figured out.
I didn’t want a Harvey Keitel in my movie. I didn’t want a police officer that was sympathetic to the criminals but had to bring them to justice. I didn’t want that and that’s breaking convention. Mind you Harvey Keitel is great in Thelma & Louise but I didn’t want to cut away from them. I just wanted the audience to be put in their shoes. It wasn’t easy but we figured it out.
AD: How did the story evolve from that initial idea to the finished film?
LW: It’s so funny because Daniel [Kaluuya] said this earlier today. He had read a very early draft a couple years ago but he knew the character was there. Yeah I tweaked and played with certain things but its essence was there. In the writing process whatever comes out first is usually what needs to be there and that’s why I notes and development because you lose the grit and potency of what you’re trying to do. It was important that I not let anyone interrupt the storytelling. I told myself I wasn’t going to take any notes from white people. We were going to have final cut. It was going to be me and Melina in the trenches and were going to make something very pure, very black, in our native tongue, and people would have to deal with it.
AD: What was the process like getting the film made? Was there every any pressure or pushback from the studio or executives to change some of the more controversial aspects of the film?
LW: The thing is we never had to fight for it. Every single studio in this town was vying for this movie. They were asking what they had to do to get us. I knew before I showed my script to anyone that I wanted my director attached first because I didn’t want to have that debate or argument. So Melina and I were always a package deal before I sent the script out in the industry.
What had happened was happenstance. Well, it wasn’t happenstance it was God. I had dinner with Daniel and he asked about what I was working on and I described the story to him. His response was “Say no more I want to read it.” He wasn’t even working from the angle of an actor who wanted to be in the film but as a fan of my work. I sent it to him and immediately he was like “I am Slim.” I was flattered but told him to hold tight because before anything I needed Melina because whoever Queen and Slim are would be a conversation between she and I.
Sure enough Melina read it and was like “Yo, this is my first movie.” I told her Daniel wanted to be Slim and her first reaction was “Daniel Kaluuya ain’t no damn slim.” I had to convince her that yeah it seemed weird but trust me. She gave him five minutes, sat with him for five hours, and was convinced.
So we came as a package. It was me just off of my Emmy, Daniel just out of Get Out, Black Panther, and Widows, and Melina with all of her projects. The industry wanted it and they rolled out the red carpet. It became clear that they would do whatever it took to get us and this movie in their hands. I told Melina that we were going to ask for whatever we wanted which was a big budget, to shoot and release in the same year, to break a new actress, and final cut. I also told them I didn’t want any test screenings either and if we did have one it better be with a 100% black audience. And Donna Langley said “you’ve got it.” There was no fight. When I told her what I needed she didn’t bat an eye and for that I am forever grateful.
The reason it doesn’t feel like a studio movie is because it wasn’t made within that system. Universal was purely the distributor. Makeready was the financier which is Brad Weston and Pam Abdy. I told them that I didn’t want any notes and that them getting my movie meant me being left alone. They didn’t even want to change it, they wanted to support me. They just happened to have a distribution deal with Universal which was great for us because I love what they did with Get Out and Straight Outta Compton. Two black niche films that they made feel like tent poles. I was the person steering the ship and driving the car. People wanted to help tell this story without getting in the way and that’s why the movie works the way it does.
AD: Anyone who has seen the film knows that the chemistry between Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith is undeniable. What was it like to watch these two actors take your script and bring it to life in such a star making way?
LW: It’s a writer’s dream come true to see actors breathe life into these characters. Writers have to be open minded and I can be pretty strict when it comes to my script because every word I write is with intention. I don’t like ad-libbing and I am someone who needs everyone to respect the script. If something isn’t working I’ll fix it. It was great to see what they brought to it and their inflections because it became so surprising, especially Bokeem Woodbine. He brought a musicality to it. The way Jodi brought poise and anger to the script. The way Daniel can be very matter of fact. I just loved discovering these characters again through their performances because they brought something new that I couldn’t control.
AD: Watching you and director Melina Matsoukas present the film at the AFI Premiere it was very clear that the two of you have a strong creative partnership. What has it been like collaborating with her?
LW: She has a very specific way of working. I think she is one of the most exciting directors working today. She’s fresh. She’s new. She’s bold. She’s provocative. She has great influences. She is specific. She is a fresh voice. She has a fresh visual aesthetic. She’s been doing it for years on television and in music videos but to see her play on this stage is truly a gift for the audience.
It was about the relationship we had working together on ‘Thanksgiving’ [the episode of Masters of None]. There was an ease to the way we worked and it was very MJ and Quincy. It really felt magical. I was still writing Queen & Slim when we filmed the episode and that’s when I mentioned it to her for the first time and I felt it in my bones.
AD: Without spoiling too much for our readers there’s one scene in the film that has already led to a strong audience reaction and has become one of the most talked about moments of the film. The scene includes an intimate sex scene intercut with a wider protest. What has it been like as a filmmaker to see something you wrote elicit so many differing reactions and lead such a complicated conversation?
LW: I think that’s what art should do. It should create debate and we should have a differing of opinion. It should make people question. If you see something and you’re not debating it afterwards then I don’t even know what the point is. For me even I was even grappling with it as I wrote it. What would this Black boy do in this scenario? The truth is, as a black young man what are you most afraid of? I think a lot of them would tell you the police. With the news what are you constantly seeing? Think about Tamir Rice who was just a few years younger than our actor playing with a toy gun on a playground and is shot in cold blood. Is that controversial? But when you swap the narrative it people become confused. I just swapped the narrative and let people chew on that.
AD: Looking back at the film is there a moment that sticks out in your mind?
LW: That would be like choosing a favorite child. Everything in it was so personal, everything. There’s not a moment, there’s not a scene, there’s not a glance, there’s not a word, there’s not a look that is not a piece of my flesh. What I can say is the whole movie is a culmination of my experiences and what I’ve thought about. It’s me. A stranger came up to me after the premiere and said “I feel like I’ve already met you after seeing the film.” That to me is the greatest compliment I could get. There is so much of my stuff, my trauma, things I’ve ruminated on on the page. For him to say that was very moving.
Queen & Slim opens today, November 27th, in theaters nationwide.