A Conversation on Queen & Slim with Daniel Kaluuya and Melina Matsoukas

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Frankly, Daniel Kaluuya and Melina Matsoukas should need no introduction. Kaluuya is the Ugandan- British actor with a background in the theater who broke out in the Oscar-winning Get Out. Since that performance, he’s starred in Black Panther and most recently, Queen and Slim.

Matsoukas, on the other hand, is best known for her decade long run directing music videos (most iconic of which being Beyonce’s Formation before evolving to Television with Issa Rae’s Insecure and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and now film with Queen and Slim.

The film’s premise is simple

Slim and Queen’s first date takes an unexpected turn when a policeman pulls them over for a minor traffic violation. When the situation escalates, Slim takes the officer’s gun and shoots him in self-defense. Now labeled cop killers in the media, Slim and Queen feel that they have no choice but to go on the run and evade the law. 

In what could be interpreted as a sign of the country’s increasing soft power both director and actor were in Nigeria over the weekend to promote the film.

Below are excerpts of an interview;

What is the process like prepping for a new role? How did you prepare for Slim, in particular? What other things have you done to prepare for new roles?

Daniel: I do this exercise where you go through the script and write everything someone says about you, everything you say about everyone else, and everything you say about yourself and all the facts before the film. A character lives in between everything you say about yourself and everything someone says about you. You have to signal both with one thing, it’s like being decisively ambiguous; like staying in that line where you are being true to what you mean but it allows the audience to interpret and project.

There’s a method acting thing you have with your eyes, where you allow your eyes to convey the emotions during your roles. How did you develop that?

I did this film called Sicario and it was my first time working with that level of talent. And it’s about saying this, actually when you are thinking – if you are thinking – just the confidence to think and understand that it’ll translate on your face if you are thinking the thoughts. A lot of times, in the scenes, I’ll just take out the words and do sounds; like how can you say what you want to say without saying the words. I think that’s more interesting.

How was this role tasking for you?

Yeah, because it was much more of a content character. He’s very emotionally confident. In the first fifteen minutes of the film, he says “I want to go home and see my family.” It’s very rare to see a character that just says what they mean and what they want at the very beginning. That side of it, I’m just trying to map an arc of someone that just knows who they are. It’s quite hard, quite difficult because how are you going to grow and what are they going to change into. So, you are trying to find out! That bit of it was a challenge.

You once said you hate talking about race. Queen and Slim has a lot to do with racist issues. How did you reconnect to that? 

How did I reconnect to that? I didn’t say I hate talking about racism. That’s a misquote that’s been misconstrued by the people that do that. Anyway, I hate explaining something that I don’t do. If I love black people, why am I explaining why people don’t love black people? That’s weird. I just think it is weird that they ask black people that.  I think they should stop doing that.

In terms of doing race, I like to explore the truth. As a black person navigating the Western world, that’s a part of the things you have to navigate, and it’s the truth. I like expressing our perspective and experience on it but I can’t really explain how white people see us because I am not white.

There’s a scene in Queen and Slim where you say “why do black people always have to be excellent, why can’t we just be us”. Why do you think we place such a burden upon ourselves and how do you think we can start unlearning how to let go of those expectations?

Melina: I think that’s a burden that we all carry as black people: to be great. I think that it exists because of racism and colonialization because these opportunities aren’t given to us frequently or as much as they should be. And so, every time we have the opportunity to deliver we have to because so much of the next generations depend on our success. The more successful I am as a creator, the more voices and creatives of color can come in, and also succeed and tell their stories. So, I think it’s a burden that we all kind of carry. Unfortunately, it’s a heavy burden, it’s not great. I feel that the way to rid ourselves of that burden is to keep creating; where our stories – and their diversities – become the norm and there isn’t so much depending on one person to represent all of us.

How involved were you with the soundtrack?

Melina: Tremendously. It’s my film, so I find myself involved in every aspect and detail of the telling of the story. I’m also very much a frustrated A&R so I enjoy music. Obviously, I come from music videos so I believe greatly in the power of story-telling through music and I also believe in the connecting elements that music has for us as black people. I wanted to bring back the soundtrack. I grew up, many years ago, with tremendous soundtracks: Love Jones, Boomerang and Nutty Professor that had introduced me to artists I wasn’t familiar with. I wanted to do the same thing for generations now, and introduce new artists too; and also show our interconnectedness as black voices, our history from soul, into hip-hop, R&B, bounce, and now afrobeats. And show how they are all part of our experience as black people and how we have so many diverse stories.

So looking at your previous roles, we see that you take up roles that provide social commentary. When picking up a role is this something that is very important to your artistic process? We’ve seen a lot of movies that have spoken about racial profiling and racism in America. What makes Queen and Slim different?

Daniel: I try to just kind of be a part of things that resonate in the people that I am around, and stuff that I feel hasn’t been expressed or articulated. Just in whatever regard and I have been fortunate to be in those kinds of films. I try not to consciously be like, ‘it’s got to talk about this.’ It’s just got to tell the truth. If you tell the truth then you talk about stuff. You could say the Lego Movie is a commentary on father-son relationships. But it’s not seen in that kind of space because of the aesthetic. I just see every film- if it resonates, it’s because it speaks to something that is hard to say in life.

I think it’s just because of the love story. It’s so current in that it starts from Tinder. I’ve just never seen that before. It’s articulating something that’s around, that people are living. Being in a situation that the Police stopped. Being in a situation that Melissa was able to articulate with her direction was like being out of control of when you are a hostage in someone’s perspective, anything you may be able to do will not get the result you want, and how powerful that perspective is upon you when you don’t have it; it’s been put upon you, it’s been projected upon you! And to have a love story out of it – they go on the run and they hate each other – that’s an incredible narrative. It’s a film I want to watch, and it’s something that will resonate in the community, and even out of it.

Melina: Also, what makes it different is that it is the first time when it is absent of police brutality – where we are fighting back. Whether it is accidental or not intentional, we are no longer victims. We didn’t want to make a film that was about black people being victimized, we wanted to show our power, and what happens when we come together and support each other. And Queen and Slim start a movement.

What was your first contact with contemporary African culture?

Melina: I grew up taking African dance so it was really important for me as a woman, as an artist. I guess the first experience was probably from my parents with Fela Kuti, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Youssou Ndour. It’s always been a part of me musically like what I love. I also saw so much of the connection between African musicians, American musicians, West Indian musicians, and this beat that I think we all share; this rhythm that is transcontinental.

Do you see more culture merging? 

Melina: I hope so. You know Queen and Slim really speaks to the African diaspora, who we are as black people, and how our unity is our greatest weapon against oppression. It speaks to our connectedness. Daniel’s Ugandan and British. My blackness is through Jamaica and Cuba, Jodie too is Jamaican and Lena is African-American. We all have these common stories, ideas, and experiences that make us come together as a people, and it is really beautiful; that’s why it was really important for us to be here, and come home. It was important for me to bring my first feature to the homeland because this is where it all started.

What inspired your characters? What was it like creating the chemistry?

Melina: I didn’t write it. Lena Waithe did. Actually, someone pitched her the premise at a party. Two black people on a first date get pulled over by a cop and they kill him in self-defense. She went off and created these characters. I think that came from all of us. That came from her experiences, our experiences as black people, and there are different characters along the way that represent different aspects of black people and who we are and the diversity. In terms of the chemistry, that kind of created itself.

Daniel: Me and Jodie got along. We just got on, and we supported each other in the process.

Why is it so important to tell this story to the black audience? 

Melina: It was important because I feel like it hasn’t been represented before. We don’t have many of our own stories told by us. Our history is taken, re-written, the culture is stolen, and given away, we don’t have ownership of our narratives, and I feel like it is time for us to reclaim who we are as a people, reclaim our stories, and be able to share them with ourselves and the world.

Photography: Ojuolape Agbaje 

This interview was conducted as part of a press junket where a range of journalists pitched in with their questions. The interview has been edited for clarity. 

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