Did you ever wonder what it would be like if Paul Bunyon was black? A few years ago we learned that Santa Claus was black. So were Jeebus and James Bond. But at least three of those people are fictional characters (Santa is REAL!!!) so changing their skin color (or gender) is just a matter of a few keystrokes. What if we could change inconvenient or undesirable facts about real people?
Queen & Slim, starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Smith-Turner in a tale of young lovers on the run, invites comparisons to the story of Bonnie and Clyde from the drop. It’s the tale, sometimes bloody, of two doomed young lovers on the run from the law — a familiar American archetype.
But if Queen & Slim is consciously playing with that story, it’s also subverting it. The real-life Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were thieves and criminals who captured national attention in the early 1930s, the press telling breathless (and sometimes souped-up) stories of their swaggering exploits. They died in an ambush on May 23, 1934, at the ages of 23 and 25, respectively, and their deaths became the seeds of a legend.
The story has been retold on screen and in song many times since then, and always with an edge of revolt. Prominent directors have taken a crack at it, remixing the facts to tell their own tale: Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1950), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Terence Malick’s Badlands (1973), Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise (1991), Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994, from a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino), Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass (1994), and David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) all trace their origins back to Bonnie and Clyde in one way or another.
With a screenplay by The Chi’s Lena Waithe, this version of the Bonnie and Clyde tale stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as two Clevelanders who meet at a diner for a Tinder date and don’t particularly hit it off. But on the way home, they get pulled over, and the police officer — who, it later turns out, had shot a black man several years ago in a similar circumstance — ends up getting shot by accident instead. The pair panic and take off together, virtual strangers forced into a familiar framework.
Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, which starred Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as the pair in a sexy, sometimes shockingly violent romance, became a rallying cry for disaffected countercultural youth. But in that film and others, Bonnie and Clyde court and enjoy the notoriety that media attention brings to them; they’re the symbols of alluring danger, of youthful rebellion.
Not so much for Queen and Slim. They don’t want to be the face of anything. Yet they live in a tinderbox America, ready to flame, and as their faces begin to appear on the news as the subjects of a nationwide manhunt, they become the symbol of something much different than other Bonnies and Clydes. They’re not icons of generational revolt. They’re the face of frustration with police violence and a world where having to shoot in self-defense will never suffice as an explanation, not if you’re black.
And so they become a symbol for the watching nation of triumphing over trauma, even as they don’t feel particularly triumphant. Waithe told Entertainment Weekly that the film is “a rebel cry,” but that it’s also about the trauma she feels watching the news: “I think when people hear about black people being killed by cops, they know that it’s sad, they know that it’s not right. But as a black person, there’s no one there to hold my hand. There’s no one there to rub my back and tell me that I’m okay, that we’re going to be okay.”
It’s a subversive and powerful way to retell the Bonnie and Clyde myth for a new era — but also to reexamine what that myth has meant (something that Thelma and Louise’s feminist retelling did as well). It was possible to shade the story of a gun-toting white couple on the run from the law as glamorous and electric, a symbol of freedom and rebellion on the open road. But in the American imagination, that pair always had to be white, even if all the other details were fictionalized. To make them black would be to imbue the story with some other element, some fear that white America has chosen to tell in very different sorts of movies.
Queen & Slim turns that on its head, without getting too explicit about what it’s doing; it’s still at core a moving doomed love story about two real people stuck in an unfair situation they can’t escape. It’s a Bonnie and Clyde tale worth telling today — not just for how it calls back to our past, but how it dwells with our uncomfortable present.
Legend? Rallying cry for disaffected youth?
What the fuck?
B&C were a little before my time, but I remember the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde movie. That was 52 years ago. (That I can remember the movie at all is amazing when you consider that I am only plenty-nine.) But in 1967 pretty much any American over the age of forty would be able to remember the real deal.
I remember that there was some controversy, but what I recall people talking about was the fact that Hollywood made B&C seem glamourous. Warren Beatty was Brad Pitt before Brad Pitt, and Faye Dunaway still looks pretty good now. But the real B&C were neither glamorous nor even particularly good-looking.
Clyde Barrow was a career criminal before he met Bonnie Parker. After they teamed up they went on a two-year spree of robbery, murder and occasional jaywalking. The conventional wisdom used to be that they gained fame and notoriety because they robbed banks during an era when banks were widely despised because bank failures had wiped out people’s life savings and the banks that didn’t fail were foreclosing on homes and small farms.
I honestly don’t know how popular they really were, but they didn’t rob that many banks. (Clyde preferred robbing gas stations.) Mr. Barrow and Miss Parker were basically extremely violent small-time crooks who chose the outlaw life and died an outlaw death. You could call Clyde a serial killer or a spree killer – both terms are accurate, Parker and Barrow were nobodies. Bonnie & Clyde, on the other hand, were two of the first media-created celebrities.
Back in the early 30’s radio and automobiles were still the latest things in high tech. You couldn’t buy a decent television and there was literally nothing to watch anyway. Going on the internet was a big waste of time too. The Information Superhighway in 1932 consisted of a World-Wide Web of telegraph lines and dead-tree journalists.
News editors figured out they could sell more newspapers by using sensationalism. So they pumped up true stories and embellished others. Sometimes they made schitt up. B&C were soon reading about the fictionalized versions of themselves. Eventually, B&C were trying to emulate their own press clippings.
1. (especially in journalism) the use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement.
This may shock you but once upon a time the news media was not nearly as obsessive about factual accuracy as they are today. Even worse, you couldn’t count on Snopes to hold them accountable. Think about how badly the news media handled the cases of St. Trayvon of the Sidewalk and the Gentle Giant of Ferguson. Imagine how much worse it would have been if there was no Fox News or alternative news media
So where did the Juicevox writer get the idea that B&C 1967 was a rallying cry for disaffected youth? I clicked on the link she gave, and it took me to a Juicevox article from 2017 written by . . . the same author. You can read more about the author here.
Last but not leashed, what is the point of making a “black Bonnie and Clyde?” Are you trying to show that Black people are capable of committing violent crimes? Will Queen and Slim meet a different fate than B&C because they are black? Why did Thelma and Louise choose suicide?
If this post makes no sense, it’s because the Juicevox article makes no sense.