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'We wanted to have a critique on the systematic racism that has painted us as monsters'

Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith star in the powerful and stylish Queen And Slim, about two people who go on the run after a fatal altercation with a police officer. Laura Harding meets the pair, as well as director Melina Matsoukas and writer Lena Waithe


Shocking story: Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in Queen And Slim

Shocking story: Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in Queen And Slim

Shocking story: Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in Queen And Slim

It's only a few minutes into Queen And Slim when you realise your stomach just dropped. A young black man and woman, played by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, are in a car on a forgettable first date when a police siren sounds, lights flash, and they are pulled over for a traffic stop by a white policeman.

Before anything even happens, your sense of dread starts to build.

"We are placing all audiences in that experience, what it feels like as a person of colour when you see those lights behind you and you don't know if you're going to make it out," director Melina Matsoukas says as she sits animatedly beside writer Lena Waithe.

Tensions quickly escalate and the cop grazes the unnamed woman, who we know as Queen, with a bullet. The man, who we know as Slim, grabs the gun and fatally shoots the officer.

In that moment their lives change forever, and suddenly the two relative strangers are on the run, knowing their chance of acquittal is slim.

As the video of the altercation goes viral in media-fuelled America, they become mythologised by some as heroes of the Black Lives Matter movement and hunted and reviled by others as dangerous and violent criminals.

"We really wanted to reflect the times," the film-maker adds.

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"We wanted to have a critique on our culture, on systematic racism in the institutions that we live in, that have painted us as monsters.

"And we wanted to portray that as honestly and authentically so that all people could understand and create empathy for our community."

Waithe, who first worked with celebrated music video director Matsoukas on the cult Thanksgiving episode of the Netflix series Master Of None, nods in agreement.

"Just the fact we didn't have to say anything, that visual and that sound, it resonates, people can understand the fear.

"I think that is why it was so urgent to tell the story," she says.

"This was an epidemic that was happening, not just in our country but all over the world, and I think the time was now to tell it.

"That is why I really was adamant that we have to shoot and release this script in the same year, because if you sit on it, someone else will do a bad version of this movie."

Does she think it's an angry film?

"I don't think it's necessarily angry," Waithe says thoughtfully, "I think it's truth.

"I think it's reality and people I think don't necessarily want to look at that, they want a fantasy, but unfortunately black folks don't get to live in a fantasy in this world.

"I didn't want to portray something false, I wanted to be honest about what that experience is like."

As the pair hit the road, heading for Florida from Ohio in the hope of getting to Cuba, they discover themselves and each other.

For British star Kaluuya, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in race satire Get Out, it was the relationship that develops between the pair that held the most appeal.

"I think it was just the simplicity of the love story that really spoke to me," he says.

"The characters popped off the page and I read it and I was on the journey with them.

"I was invested in their evolution and how they were able to connect, that really spoke to me.

"And what sets this film apart, and what sets this script apart for me, was that in a crazy situation there are some really great jokes.

"You meet some funny people and they're not trying to be funny, just their outlook is humorous.

"There are these really amazing moments where people are just really interesting, in how people approach tense situations."

He is more circumspect about the question of anger.

"If it's angry, then that is a reflection of you.

"Someone did say to me you should only make a film if you've got something to scream about so I think every film has an element of cup runneth over, where you want to let something out.

"If someone wants to take it and make it their own, then we have done our job.

"I try not to project or tell you how to feel, it's just trying to tell a story and go, 'What do you think?'

"If there is something you want to speak about, whether it's good or bad, you just want to keep the conversation going and hopefully people are able to see each other better."

Turner-Smith, who is best known for her role in Nightflyers, leans forward.

"The story felt like it was something so relevant to right now and especially because I live in America and it felt like it was speaking to something that is a very real fear as a person existing.

"So it was an interesting way to tell a story surrounding that topic and also interesting because it really is a love story. It really is about these two people and their journey and who they become and why they become that.

"I thought that that greater point of it made the story so much more interesting. It wasn't just, 'Oh we are talking about this' and really heavy-handed, it was really about that love."

Queen And Slim is in cinemas now

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