At the start of Queen & Slim, a 2019 theatrical release that recently came out digitally and on DVD, we watch a young couple drive into the night in a car whose license plate reads, “TRUSTGOD.” We hold our breath as the car swerves, and we groan nervously when a police light flashes from behind. We wince while the driver, Ernest (Daniel Kaluuya), is ordered to exit the vehicle. We whisper warnings to his date, Angela (Jodie Turner-Smith), as she stands up to the arresting officer (Sturgill Simpson), demands his badge number, and steps out of the car herself and into the sights of his gun.
For many, this interaction looks like a routine traffic stop. But because Ernest and Angelia are both Black and the officer is White, we dread what’s coming next. We’ve all watched this scene unfold before in our social-media feeds and on news reports, which have documented the increasing number of real-life deaths of unarmed Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. So in Queen & Slim, when a tussle for the gun leaves the officer dead and the couple escaping, we breathe a sigh of relief—not because a White cop has lost his life, but because Black “suspects” are left with their lives in this unexpected exchange of power. Indeed, Queen & Slim is a movie about power: the abuse of power, calling truth to power, and relying on a higher power in the quest for liberation.
The movie suggests that Ernest and Angela’s first mistake is not shooting the officer, but the “crime” of driving while Black. The film draws from a history of uneven treatment toward Black people by the American criminal justice system—ranging from the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policies, which targeted Black and Brown men, to the doling out of harsher sentences in cases involving Black offenders. Names like Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, and Philando Castile remind us that even “routine” traffic stops can prove fatal for some. In the film, we meet a sheriff (Benito Martinez) who admits he’s “had some colleagues who’ve crossed the line.” And we learn that the officer from the opening confrontation had previously shot an unarmed Black man walking his daughter to school. Ernest and Angela’s fear of the law, from the moment they’re pulled over, is indicative of that shared by many in the Black community, who while left unable to trust the law are nevertheless expected to respect its authority—or else.
Queen & Slim does not suggest, of course, that all cops are malicious or that executing an officer is righteous or that all Black people would side with our protagonists. A Black mechanic (Gralen Bryant Banks) we meet midway through the film disapproves of the couple’s decision and the Bonnie-and-Clyde fame that has followed, claiming, “I would have taken my ticket and been on my way.” Later, a kind Black cop (Lucky Johnson) dies while trying to keep the peace at a rally. A reluctant White ally (Chloë Sevigny) laments that “these kids think it’s OK to kill cops” in the wake of the shooting. In this way, the film becomes about both injustice, and how we respond to injustice.
Queen & Slim is a movie about power: the abuse of power, calling truth to power, and relying on a higher power in the quest for liberation.
The story of Moses includes a scene similar to the one that opens Queen & Slim. In Exodus, we are told about the subjugation of the Hebrews under Egypt: systemic oppression, slave labor, and targeted attacks on Hebrew boys. It’s under these conditions that young Moses kills an Egyptian slave master in defense of a beaten Hebrew slave. After fleeing the scene, he undergoes a transformation. Moses marries, leaves his old life behind, and is given a divine mission: to liberate his people from bondage. Moses’ origin story shows us that we should not be solely defined by our darkest moments, but rather by what we do with our influence in this world, especially if what we do is dictated by God.
Ernest and Angela experience a rebirth in exile as well. (Spoilers ahead.) While seeking refuge with Angela’s uncle (Bokeem Woodbine), the two change clothes and shave their heads, in effect performing tonsure—a ritual haircut signaling spiritual awakening—and embracing the personas of Queen and Slim. It’s here that Slim wonders, “What if God wanted me to die and I messed up his plan?” In asking this, he defers back to the inevitability of Black subjugation and death. Queen (who, ironically, has professed her disbelief in God) is quick to reject this. “I don’t think that’s what he wanted,” she says. “I just think you were meant to be here.” Like Moses, the two eventually face their opposition and become agents of liberation for their people. But also like Moses, who died before entering the promised land, they never get to experience the freedom for which they’ve fought.
So what does it mean to be free? By the end of the film, Queen and Slim have become icons. Their image is worn on t-shirts and displayed on wall murals; their funeral sparks mourning and inspires Black pride. And yet there’s no evidence that Black Americans will now be any less susceptible to bias or police brutality. Perhaps removing the physical chains is only part of their—part of our—liberation. To be truly free is to believe in something beyond human law, especially when that law is used to exploit, terrorize, or perpetuate injustice. Remember, Moses does more than demand the emancipation of his people; he delivers proof of a higher authority, of a protection greater than the punishment dealt by Pharaoh. He shows the oppressed that they need not leave their fate to corrupt humanity if they learn to put their faith in God. To TRUSTGOD is to recognize that God is in control, even over those who do us harm.
How, then, are we to deliver this message ourselves, short of raining down a dozen plagues? Queen and Slim show us that it’s possible to liberate others through example, by being the proof of God’s presence and his plan. Yes, we can display God’s strength by confronting our enemies. But we can also demonstrate God’s love by loving one another, by showing that each of us—including, as Queen says, our “scars” and “the bruises they leave behind”—is worthy of such love, even when society says otherwise.