I left a recent matinee of “Queen & Slim,” the mesmerizing new outlaw romance directed by Melina Matsoukas, astonished on two levels. The film itself kept me rapt; I cried through the end and left the theater with the dazed, disoriented feeling you get when a movie makes you momentarily forget everything else in your life. But as amazed as I was by the experience of watching the film, I was equally amazed that it got made at all.
“Queen & Slim” is about a black man and a black woman — we don’t learn their real names until the very end — who, following a desultory first date, get caught in a traffic stop that goes hideously wrong. The policeman who pulls them over becomes needlessly aggressive, and when Queen, a defense attorney, tries to record him with her phone, he shoots her. In the scuffle that follows, the cop is killed, and the couple, their fates suddenly soldered together, go on the run.
From the title on, the film invites comparisons to Hollywood classics like “Bonnie and Clyde” and, especially, “Thelma & Louise.” (It can’t be a coincidence that the fugitives in “Queen & Slim,” like those in “Thelma & Louise,” spend much of the film in a flashy vintage turquoise car.) Producing those earlier movies, both subversive in different ways, was famously difficult. A studio executive reportedly complained about the “Thelma & Louise” screenplay, “Two bitches in a car. I don’t get it.”
I’d have guessed that the path for “Queen & Slim” — a film steeped in the politics of Black Lives Matter and helmed by a first-time director who is a woman of color — would have been even more difficult.
But I’d have guessed wrong. Speaking to Variety, the producer and screenwriter Lena Waithe made working with Universal Pictures seem like an artist’s dream. “They just paid for the movie and supported us, and let us do our thing, which was incredible,” she said.
A common lament of our time is that our culture has become too safe, and that no one can say anything provocative anymore. “Everyone fears the wrath of the Twitter mob and the social justice warriors and the P.C. police,” Bill Maher told The New York Times Magazine in September. There is certainly something to this — I know that while I try to write without concern for social media, it still inhibits me.
But it’s equally true that many artists, performers and thinkers have more freedom to tell transgressive stories than ever before. We don’t have more cultural taboos than we used to — far from it. We just have more contention over who should have the power to create and enforce them.
One of the most celebrated works on Broadway right now, “Slave Play,” is also the most shocking piece of theater I’ve ever seen. It’s built around an absurdist conceit. Three interracial couples attend a retreat at a former plantation. There, they undergo something called “antebellum sexual performance therapy,” which basically means using slavery-themed sadomasochism scenarios to help the black partners work through racial trauma.
Though “Slave Play,” which was written and directed by queer black men, takes a lot of the assumptions of what might be called social justice culture for granted, it’s nevertheless promiscuous in its provocations. (A central conflict revolves around a black woman furious at her white husband’s refusal to racially degrade her during sex.) When it premiered Off Broadway last year, it attracted outrage, including a Change.org petition calling for its cancellation on account of “anti-black sentiment.”
On Friday, a white woman started shouting during a post-show Q. and A. because she was angry about the play’s depiction of white people. Such responses, however, haven’t stopped “Slave Play” from becoming a sensation. They’ve probably made it more of one.
Of course, white artists and performers aggrieved by political correctness may not be comforted that artists of color are able to create daring work. They might find more consolation in the resurrection of Louis C.K.
One of the men ostensibly felled by the #MeToo movement, Louis C.K.’s career was derailed for about nine months after news broke of his sexual misconduct with women in his industry. Now performing again, he was recently in the news for making a Holocaust joke in Israel. The crowd reportedly loved it, even if Twitter didn’t. He’ll be on tour in America soon; most of the dates are sold out.
What men like Louis C.K. or Maher have lost isn’t the right to offend, or to make a living, but their place on the cultural cutting edge. That kind of loss feels real; the process of going from being ahead of your time to behind it is a painful one. But the forces that leave some artists and performers feeling newly constrained have liberated others to take risks. Writing about “Queen & Slim” in The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb said, “This is a film that stands as strong a chance of being hailed and lauded as it does of being denounced and picketed.”
Twitter rage can be scary, but surely it requires at least as much courage for a Hollywood movie to take on the police.