‘Queen & Slim’ and what I (don’t) want from Black love stories
If this is what revolutionary Black love looks like, then I don't want it.
This essay contains spoilers for Queen & Slim
He knew how to boost cars, and had learned to do it when he was younger. She was a harder woman than most, and ended up nursing an injured leg for most of the time that they were on the run together. An officer of the law was shot dead and every bit of the blame had fallen on them, regardless of the facts of what really happened.
The two young fugitives, known nationwide as armed, wily, and dangerous, met their gruesome end after a betrayal by a man who was meant to help them. They died together in a hail of police gunfire, though neither of them held a weapon in their final moments on Earth. They drew their last breaths together, bodies close, bloodied, and full of holes. It was a poetic end to a tragic “love story” in which many have found unexpected inspiration.
Bonnie and Clyde are immortal now. I think they knew that they would be. Bonnie even wrote poetry about their inevitable demise and how they might be remembered after like the outlaw Jesse James. They are romanticized now as two players in a “love story for the ages” but I wish they were more widely recognized and thought of as the social bandits that they really were; social bandits being “peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but… are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as [people] to be admired, helped and supported,” according to historian Eric Hobsbawm.
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They met as kids, growing up extremely poor during the Great Depression. What they really wanted was to escape a poverty-stricken existence, struggling and stealing to eat the entire time. The cultural narrative about Bonnie and Clyde, both then and now, is far-removed from the reality of their lives on the run.
“Celebrities reflect their times and cultures [and] Clyde and Bonnie came to epitomize the edgy daydreams of the economically and socially downtrodden… But as historian Iris Chang noted in an interview a generation later, ‘Celebrities are really distractions for the general public, first created, then most often destroyed, consumed, for our amusement.'”
—Jeff Guinn, Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde
It’s not difficult to recognize the parallels between the real-life story of Bonnie and Clyde and the fictional tale of Queen and Slim, who become reluctant social bandits of the modern era. The stories align quite well, with the world wildly misinterpreting true events and painting its own portrait of their lives, their intent, and their mission—the most significant difference being that Bonnie and Clyde were deeply in love for many years, and Queen and Slim had only just met.
Romanticizing Bonnie and Clyde was never a good idea to begin with, and I don’t believe we should do this with Queen and Slim either. Our culture’s ahistorical and sometimes revisionist hyper focus on their love has only aided in the erasure of all the pain, injury, desperation, and destruction that are far more significant to Bonnie and Clyde’s story.
So, what is it that we want, what do we need, from love stories, especially ones meant to be for and about Black people? I know I needed more than watching these two beautiful young Black people be destroyed and consumed, celebritized and commodified, and their death offered up as romanticized immortality. I needed more than watching them crash into each other—suddenly thrust into a life-threatening situation, forced into close proximity and high tension, bonding through shared trauma and emotional distress.
I damn sure needed something different than watching a passionate fuck between them chopped up with imagery of Black people being beaten and tear gassed by police. A juxtaposition of the erotic with the spectacle of racist violence and Black death is quite literally a pastime and perversion of white supremacy, and I don’t need that shit in my Black love stories.
The director said that “it’s ultimately a story that defines Black love as a revolutionary act. It shows that our union is the greatest weapon against the assault on Black people in America” and the writer called it “protest art.” But for me, and for a lot of other Black people, Queen & Slim does not taste like revolution, or love, or protest. It tastes unsavory and stale. For us, the film does not serve as any kind of weaponry or defense against white supremacy, and itself feels like an assault on Black minds.
Colleagues and friends confided in me that they were unable to sleep afterwards. My friend Tiffany said it best when she remarked that what Queen & Slim did was “facilitate a collective dive” into a deep and abiding, but familiar depression among Black audiences. “Dangerous,” she told me. “This movie is dangerous.”
I wanted to hug her. I still do. I want to hold on tight, so tight, to everyone who was so deeply affected by it. I want so badly to comfort and console every Black person who left the theater feeling harmed, and violated, and betrayed, and lied to because they were told unequivocally that they were being gifted “a revolutionary Black love story.”
(Un)fortunately, I had part of the ending spoiled for me before going to see the film. And Queen’s uncle referring to the pair as “the Black Bonnie and Clyde”—along with quite a bit of foreshadowing dialogue throughout—cemented the inevitability of a deadly end for one or both of them. I went in knowing that someone would not make it out alive, and while I loathe spoilers, I’m somewhat grateful that I had a warning this time.
Initially, I handled it well, more frustrated than anything else. But soon I found myself struggling to cope. Holding back tears and weighed down by sadness later that night, I was despondent and anxious. It became apparent that my body was holding tension I’d carried home with me from the theater—eyes burning, neck hot, shoulders tight, head swimming, jaw clenched, brow furrowed. I found myself in actual pain and distress. The tears could not be held back anymore.
The next day, I awoke hours before my alarm, but still filled with fatigue. I felt heavy. And I thought, if Queen & Slim did this to me, I can’t imagine what it did to the people who had no idea what was coming. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to walk into the theater expecting to feel loved up on, only to become a witness to racial trauma yet again and feel racked with anxiety for days on end.
They thought this would be an escape for them, and were even given false hope, only to be ambushed and left with open wounds. Just like Queen and Slim were. To sell Queen & Slim to Black folks as a revolutionary Black love story, considering what it actually turned out to be, is beyond irresponsible and disingenuous. It’s cruel.
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Fatigue and exhaustion are not heavy enough words to describe the weight this makes me feel. If this is what revolutionary Black love looks like, then I don’t want it. Keep that shit away from me and the Black people I love. What does romanticizing Black death at the hands of the state really do, and for whom? How does it serve, protect, or defend us? How can it possibly? There is no glory and no romance in it, nor should there be.
I want and need us to be able to imagine Black love, romance, intimacy, friendship, hope, tenderness, solidarity, community, and care that is allowed to just be, for the sake of being. Because we deserve it. We deserve a love that isn’t born of trauma, that isn’t served up with state violence and Black death as its overbearing backdrop. Black people, Black lives, and Black love are worthy of so much more.
Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn
Bandits by Eric Hobsbawm