AFI FEST Interview: QUEEN & SLIM Writer Lena Waithe
Although initially known as an onscreen performer, Lena Waithe turned heads when she wrote the poignant Thanksgiving episode of MASTER OF NONE in which, over a series of Thanksgivings, a young woman embraces her sexuality as she struggles to come out to her family. Not only was the episode critically hailed, but it also earned Waithe an Emmy Award®, making her the first African-American woman to take home an Emmy® for comedic writing.
Since then, Waithe has created the Showtime series THE CHI and now is making her feature debut as a writer on QUEEN & SLIM, a harrowing thriller directed by Melina Matsoukas (AFI Class of 2005) and starring Jodie-Turner Smith and Daniel Kaluuya. The film is a meditation on young love, police brutality and the experience of being black in America. It is scheduled to be released on November 27, 2019, by Universal Pictures.
AFI spoke with Waithe about working on QUEEN & SLIM, collaborating with Matsoukas and what artists are inspiring her these days.
AFI: What initially drew you to QUEEN & SLIM?
LW: Something about the idea of a black couple getting pulled over after their first date and killing the cop that pulls them over in self defense just blew me away. I knew that I could tell a bigger story with that being the inciting incident. It gave me the space I needed to dive into so many things, and it gave me a chance to tell a big, yet grounded, love story.
AFI: How did the creative process for QUEEN & SLIM differ from your other projects?
I had complete autonomy. I wrote the script and got feedback from artists I trust and love, and then Melina gave it a visual voice that took it to the next level. The process was really long and wonderful and frustrating and educational.
AFI: Can you talk about your working relationship with Melina and how it evolved from working together on television to film?
LW: Melina is my sister. We fight like sisters, but we love like sisters too. We trust each other. I trust her to direct the movie, while she trusts me to write it. We both know our strengths and weaknesses, and we lift each other up when we have to. I have no desire to do everything. Neither does she. That’s why we work so well together.
AFI: What do you want audiences at AFI FEST – or anywhere – to take away from this film?
LW: I can’t tell folks what to take away from the film, I just hope it makes them feel something.
AFI: During your keynote address to AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women a couple of years ago, you said, “Cinema has always been the perfect time capsule for us as a society…whether we like it or not.” What do you hope QUEEN & SLIM captures about society in this moment?
LW: I hope it reminds people that there was a time in our history when police officers were allowed to kill unarmed black people and get away with it.
AFI: Who are the storytellers you look up to? Who are the storytellers that inspire you?
LW: Leslie Harris made JUST ANOTHER GIRL ON THE I.R.T., and it stayed with me forever. It’s so real, grounded and indie. It’s a love letter to teenage black girls everywhere. Melina, Dime Davis, Tiffany Johnson, Justin Tipping, Justin Simien, Juel Taylor, A.V. Rockwell and Andrew Donsumu are just some of the storytellers that inspire me. They’re true artists, and they all force me to look at cinema with a new set of eyes.
AFI: What advice do you have for young writers?
LW: Study the craft. Perfect it. Then break all the rules.
Watch the trailer below: