The ominous caverns that may be hidden below the fractured landscape of contemporary America are the violent playground for two Universal Pictures films, Us and Queen & Slim, that were represented on Saturday at Deadline’s The Contenders Los Angeles by two filmmakers who plugged into the nightmare side of the American Dream with fascinating results.
First to the stage was Melina Matsoukas, who made her directorial debut this year with the Universal/Makeready spree film Queen & Slim, which follows in tradition of Natural Born Killers, Bonnie & Clyde, Thelma & Louise and other outlaw-duo-on-the-run tales.
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The film was written by Lena Waithe and it stars Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Chloë Sevigny, Flea, Sturgill Simpson, and Indya Moore. The story starts with Kaluuya and Turner-Smith as a couple on a first date. The flirty fun takes a dark twist, however, the a police traffic stop escalates into a physical confrontation between the overly zealous officer and Slim. The struggle ends with the cop dead on the ground and Slim and Queen on the lam. The pair become folk heroes when a video of the roadside showdown video goes viral.
Matsoukas said the messages of the movie make it especially trenchant but the element that captured her attention was the budding love between the two title characters who find a powerful bond amid the escalating madness and danger of their situation.
“I loved it because the script for me was everything: it was political, it was saying something, it was illuminating issues in the black community with police brutality and so many of our struggles, but mostly because it was this beautiful love story as well,” Matsoukas said. “It really straddles the line between all kinds of genres. It starts off as a rom com when these two people meet in a diner and don’t necessarily get along. Then its somewhat of a horror film as they ae confronted by this really racist cop and end up killing him in self defense. And then we get to enjoy this beautiful journey between two black people…We also use comedy a lot even though it’s very much a drama.”
Matsoukas, making her feature film directorial debut, also wanted to push toward a screen story that resisted the routine expectations. One way was casting actors who are not usually given lead roles in Hollywood romances (“They are very dark-skinned people, too, which I thought was really important. I’ve never seen that represented on screen.”) in hopes of and up-ending the rhythms of crime movies where the black characters too often are “the ones on the ground” and “victims not victors.”
Queen & Slim makes its world premiere at the 33rd AFI Fest on Nov. 14.
Jordan Peele’s Us, the in-demand writer-director’s horror follow-up to his Oscar-winning effort with Get Out, is rooted in the American culture of his youth.
“I’m a kid of the 80s and that juxtaposition between this sense that we are the vanguard of the world, we are winning the Cold War, we’ve got Michael Jackson, we’ve got the L.A. Olympics, we’ve got the space program and [on the other side] these different instances and events where we saw the cracks and saw where we are now where we are very capable as a country and as individuals of ignoring our part in evil and in wrongdoing.”
Among the film’s symbols of the Reagan Era’s aspirational spirit and its compromised practices: Hands Across America. That was a public participation component of the USA for Africa famine relief campaign that called for million of Americans to, literally, hold hands across the continuous United States. On a Sunday in May 1986, an estimated 6 million people formed a human chain that spanned the geographic expanse between Long Beach, California, and New York City. While the effort raised $15 million from donors “reserving” their spots in the line, Peele found the imagery of the eccentric demonstration to be unsettling and unflattering.
Deadline’s Dominic Patten asked Peele how a largely forgotten charity stunt became such a memorable component of the horror film.
“It came up early in the script writing process,” Peele said. “There was something about the image of Americans standing in a line, holding hands, with this sort of ’80s, Reagan-esque optimism that if we stand here we can cure hunger. Because that’s how you do it. The insidiousness of the naïveté or the naiveness of the insidiousness just felt ripe for horror. It was creepy and the Reagan Era does kind of give that to you.”
The story of Us is an eerie plunge into a sinister tale where a family on vacation is confronted by violent doppelgängers who “want their turn” and will kill their counterparts to secure it. The cast members portrayed the flip-side versions of their primary characters. Peele said that presented an unusual challenge to the actors and to the filmmaking process but he explained that his standard approach is to accommodate the actors in their own favored approach to the work and tailor his interactions to each of those actors/approaches.
“My philosophy is that actor always has a completely different way of working whereas traditionally as an actor working with directors its sort of been a thing where [actors] kind of join the then-director’s style and his or her’s way fo working. For me I kind of do the opposite. I say ‘Look, I’m going to try to help you accentuate your performance and try to fit your style and give you the process that you think can help you deliver the best.”