A moving love story at its core, Queen & Slim is a lyrical piece of cinema that resonates with social relevance, yet always feels very personal.
Part of the power of filmmaking is that it can put a human face (or faces) on the black experience in America. It's one thing to read yet another story about a police officer assaulting an unarmed black person, but it's another to watch a movie that treats the victim like an actual individual, as opposed to a statistic. Films like Fruitvale Station and Blindspotting have done this to heart-breaking effect in recent years, and it's the same thing director Melina Matsoukas does with her feature debut, Queen & Slim, a movie about a pair of outlaws on the run, in the tradition of Thelma & Louise. A moving love story at its core, Queen & Slim is a lyrical piece of cinema that resonates with social relevance, yet always feels very personal.
Queen & Slim begins on a chilly night in Cincinnati, as a pair of Tinder users (Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya) meet up for what proves to be an awkward dinner date. On the drive home, the two are pulled over by a cop for a minor traffic violation in a situation that progressively escalates, and results in "Slim" shooting the police officer in an act of self-defense. Terrified, he and "Queen" decide they have no choice but to go on the run, and set out for her Uncle Earl's (Bokeem Woodbine) place in New Orleans, in an effort to lay low and figure out their next move. But when footage of their incident goes viral, Queen and Slim evolve from being labeled cop-killers in the news to a symbol for black Americans who've long been traumatized and terrorized by the law.
The film starts off almost like a rom-com about two utterly mismatched people on a meet-up (Queen is an uptight defense attorney and atheist; Slim is pretty outgoing, works behind a cash register, and prays before every meal), and it serves to make the pair all the more relatable before their lives take a sharp turn in an unexpected direction. Queen & Slim was scripted by Lena Waithe, from an original screen story that she wrote, and she brings the same sense of everyday situational humor to the table here as she did on her award-winning Master of None episode "Thanksgiving" (which Matsoukas also directed). It's fitting too, as Queen & Slim is as much a story about relationships and love, be it familial or romantic, and the things worth living for in a terrible world, as it is an on-the-run thriller. By embracing the cringe comedy inherent to the idea of two individuals who barely know each other becoming fugitives together, the film succeeds in grounding Queen and Slim's struggles in a way that a more po-faced approach wouldn't have been able to.
But of course, Queen & Slim is serious and sincere when it comes to dealing with police brutality and the pain and suffering it inflicts on black America. It's a film that reclaims the narrative by allowing black artists to tackle these issues from both sides of the camera, via a story that explores how the idea of Queen & Slim the couple ("The black Bonnie & Clyde", as Earl refers to them) means something very different to different people, depending on their age and race. And as clever and often subversive as the writing is, it's the performances that really brings out the humanity in the movie's characters and makes them feel alive. Kaluuya once again does powerful work here as Slim (with a turn that's more about his internal emotions, rather than external), yet it's Turner-Smith - a relative newcomer - who breaks out as Queen. It's satisfying to watch as she slowly lowers her emotional defenses and opens up to Slim over the course of their journey, even finding her own sense of spirituality along the way.
Stylistically, Queen & Slim is firmly rooted in black culture, from its soundtrack and settings to the multi-colored sex worker and pimp outfits that Earl (who's played wonderfully by Woodbine) keeps his home stocked with, as designed by Shiona Turini (Insecure). Tat Radcliffe's cinematography similarly draws on much of the same iconography as Matsoukas' music videos from Beyoncé's Lemonade in its portrayal of the U.S. South, creating a richly-hued and often poetic vision of rural America today - one where traumatizing reminders of the past still linger for many black Americans (like in a scene where Queen spots convicts plowing a field like slaves on a plantation). There are moments where Matsoukas rips her own work off a little too much, admittedly, especially during a protest that inevitably turns violent. Even so, Queen & Slim is a very assured and confident feature debut for the filmmaker.
Queen & Slim adheres to the conventions of the outlaws-on-the-run genre all the way through, yet breathes new life into these tropes by approaching them from a different perspective. It might not be quite as narratively innovative as some of the other films about black trauma made in the last few years (a high bar to clear), but it's a tender and sensitively told story about love in the face of perilous times, and may be all the more accessible to mainstream audiences because it's a genre movie at its core. And although Matsoukas and Waithe's dramatic thriller doesn't have the hype of other fall releases right now, it's very much a journey worth taking (however its own story ends).
Queen & Slim is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 132 minutes long and is rated R for violence, some strong sexuality, nudity, pervasive language, and brief drug use.
- Queen & Slim (2019) release date: Nov 27, 2019