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Lena Waithe on Meeting James Frey and Using The Story of ‘Queen & Slim’ as Protest Art

Lena Waithe on Meeting James Frey and Using The Story of ‘Queen & Slim’ as Protest Art

Lena Waithe is on fire with a never-ending series of projects under her belt, and this holiday season, her next film Queen & Slim will take you on a wild ride through some unexpected adventures.

One evening at a party, author James Frey approached Lena Waithe about a story involving a Black couple. A Black man and a Black woman on a first date. It’s not going well, but not going horribly either. They’re on their way home. They get pulled over. A cop gets aggressive. They kill him in self-defense, and they go. Frey knew that this was a story worth telling, but not through his lens.

Enter Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe (Netflix’s Master of None) and filmmaker Melina Matsoukas — the mastermind behind Beyonce’s “Formation” music video — and now we’re telling a story through the lens of brilliant Black visionaries that can add nuance with ease.

The unflinching new drama Queen & Slim released by Universal Pictures, stars Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as Slim and Nightflyers‘ Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen. After Queen and Slim are pulled over in their vehicle, the situation escalates and Slim is forced to kill the police officer in self-defense. In a complicated situation predicated on a history of state-sanctioned violence and criminal injustice against African-Americans, the two fear for their lives and is forced to go on the run.

Their story is complicated further when the incident is captured on video and goes viral. Queen and Slim become a symbol of trauma, terror, grief, and pain for people across the country. BGN was invited to the set a week before Mardi Gras in New Orleans to chat with the cast and crew of the impending feature film.

On Being A Storyteller

Lena Waithe is candid about the kind of storyteller she is and that she was influenced by films like Menace II Society and Boyz In The Hood, as a matter a fact you can see those influences in her Showtime series The Chi. Waithe says, “[I’m] an artist who was raised by, people like Gina Prince-Bythewood and Ava DuVernay, who came up during a time when their mentors told them to write the world that you want to live in. And I sort of write the world in which I live. I think those are two different things.

For Queen & Slim, a story set in contemporary day Cleveland, Ohio, Waithe wanted to use this story of injustice against this Black couple as a form of protest art. Waithe adds, “I am here instead of at marches because that’s what my job entails. I kind of have to be here for a couple of months. Or I have to be in a writer’s room for 3 months at a time. I can’t always make it to the marches or things or rallies, but to me when I sit down at my computer; that’s me, that’s my rallying cry. That’s me trying to figure out who we are. That’s me trying to be as accurate as I can be. I sorta want to be the Gordon Parks of writers. I don’t want to put anything on it. His pictures tell us who we were at the time, but also very much a reflection of who we still are and that’s how I want it to feel in terms of, even if people say, “What do you want us to take away?” I can’t tell you what to take away from our art. That’s not my job. My job is to make the art; be honest; to be brutal; to be vulnerable and you feel what you feel.”

Waithe calling herself the Gordon Parks of writers isn’t that much of a stretch. A notable trait of Parks’ work in such films like The Learning Tree, capture coming-of-age stories and journies through adulthood. Waithe’s next project Twenties, recently ordered by BET, is an eight-episode half-hour series that follows the adventures of a queer Black girl, Hattie, and her two straight best friends, Marie and Nia. Waithe wrote the script when she was in her early 20s.

Photo by Andre D. Wagner/Universal Pictures
On Casting Daniel and Jodie

Waithe having a position as a TV showrunner, writer and executive producer is breaking barriers and she takes full responsibility for also breaking European ideals of beauty when casting her actors. For Waithe, choosing two dark-skinned actors as leads in Queen & Slim was a choice. Lena Waithe then goes on to tell the story of how she met Daniel Kaluuya.

Waithe says:

“It was so organic in terms of Daniel. I went to an early screening of Get Out and was obviously blown away and pissed that I couldn’t really share that experience with people for two weeks. But I met Daniel after the screening and he was aware of me, we have some mutual friends…so I got to talk to him before the movie came out. We got to connect then and it was so pure. He was looking at me like you’re somebody I know and admire. I was like, ‘Man, you about to fuck it up.’

We connected in like a very genuine way and then the movie came out and was like, ‘Yo, I just wanna grab dinner with you.’ So I was like ‘OK, cool.’ It was no Hollywood stuff. It was just like I want to sit down and break bread. Yeah, let’s do it.

We sat down and we broke bread. We were there for a few hours and we just really vibed, talking about life and everything — what it means to be a Black artist in the world in which we live. I just talked to him about this script. I had a very early draft of it, and I was like, ‘Yo, I kinda wrote a thing.’

He was like, ‘I wanna read that. I just wanna read it.’

He read it and was like, ‘I have to be Slim.’ We always knew who we wanted the Queen to be once we had Daniel because he was so known, I wanted the person to be a fresh face. I wanted the opportunity to break somebody. I just like breaking talent. I was like find me, somebody. Find me a brown skin woman, who is strong and can keep up with Daniel, which is not an easy task, but is fresh and is a breath of fresh air. 

Our more fair skin sistren have been winning for a long time and usually when they put Black, attractive women they often think of fair-skinned. I want to show the beauty of two brown-skinned people meeting, being attracted to each other, and having a love scene — so it was definitely intentional. Jodie was in our first batch of actresses.  We knew it was her from the jump. 

I’m grateful for that decision that Lee [Melina Matsoukas] and I made was one that was made with a lot of support and a lot of love.”

Photograph: David Levene
On Meeting James Frey and the Idea Behind the Script

One evening at a party, Lena Waithe meets novelist James Frey. He is notably known or notoriously known for his book “A Million Little Pieces” that became an Oprah book club selection. However shortly after reports emerged that his autobiography was more fiction than fact, the author was under fire. Oprah wasn’t all too pleased, and eventually, the beef between the two was squashed.  James Frey clearly has a creative mind, and negative scrutiny hasn’t stopped him from writing.

Simon Manyonda Gives Us a ‘Pennyworth’ for His Thoughts

According to Waithe:

“James Frey pitched me the opening at a party and [he] was like, “I can’t write this movie. I need a person to write it who understands it.” So all he gave me was an opening and that opening I was like, ‘Got it. I know what the movie is. Let me go figure this out.’ He had a different title that wasn’t right. Titles are really important.  [I thought] what are some things that I can do to make every Black man, every Black woman, no matter what your walk of life is or where you are coming from, can look at them and see a piece of yourself in them?”

The two exchanged emails, and Waithe asked Frey if he had an outline and if he had a title.

On the names Queen and Slim

Lena Waithe says that “every Black woman is a queen”. She believes African-Americans are descendants of royalty and that is where the name “queen” came from.  As for Slim, it is a popular form of vernacular used by men of a certain age in the Black community. Waithe refers to this as “the gentleman’s version of the N-word”. The name “Slim” is a term of endearment or referring to someone when greeting them.  Waithe impersonates and says, “What’s going on Slim? What’s happening Slim? How you living Slim? Even if you weren’t slim.”

For Lena Waithe, the first draft came pretty quickly and she found it complimentary that the script was compared to great classics like Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma & Louise. She believed both films changed the conversation and were iconic. However, for Waithe, the strongest reference for her in comparing Queen & Slim to another film would be the F. Gary Gray film Set It Off

Waithe says, “In terms of Black people being at a very difficult place with their back being against the wall and the thing that they do to keep going. If you think about all of those films what do you have? You have a white officer that we cut away to, to give the two leads a break. Or four leads in Set it Off’s case. Also to see a character that has to pursue the criminal, but also sympathizes with him and feels bad about having to bring him to justice.”

In Lena Waithe’s vision as a writer, her vision behind Queen & Slim is not focused on the cop chasing the protagonists, but the protagonists themselves who are being policed. Don’t expect to see cutaways and breaks in this film either, Waithe shares that you’re going to be on an adrenaline ride with these two people. The viewer will be stuck in the car with them, just the way they’re stuck in the car with each other. Audiences watching will also be on the run with Queen and Slim.

On Writing and the Process

During the process of writing the script, it was a challenging season for Lena Waithe,  “I wrote it in a very terrifying time. We were doing the first season of The Chi, when I was struggling to get power on my own show and all those things, so it was very much a protest because I wasn’t able to write as much on the show as I wanted. I didn’t have as much control over the creative, and so I said I’m gonna do the thing that God put inside of me, which is to write. So I did that. I wrote a lot. I’m just happy that in the midst of all that darkness and drama in the first season The Chi, this was one out of it; which to me is the essence of the Black experience.”

Queen & Slim is set for release on Thanksgiving weekend, November 27, 2019.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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