Queen & Slim
Sleek, superbly performed and passionate, this "lovers on the run" crime drama is steeped in the reality of US race relations today.
March 12, 2020
Queen & Slim starts with a Tinder date in a diner, as a criminal defence attorney (Jodie Turner-Smith) and a Costco employee (Daniel Kaluuya) exchange small talk. Sparks hardly fly but, when the next day breaks, they've gone from swiping right to driving across the country together — after a ripped-from-the-headlines altercation with a white police officer (Sturgill Simpson) that turns them into fugitives, complete with their faces splashed across newspapers and televisions. So, having fled from Ohio to New Orleans with every cop in the area on their trail, of course the titular characters are greeted with an obvious comparison. When Queen's uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) agrees to give the pair a temporary place to hide, he comments, "well, if it isn't the black Bonnie and Clyde". From a stranger, another reference is slung the duo's way: "are y'all the new Black Panthers?".
The debut feature by music video director Melina Matsoukas — a Grammy-winner for her work on Rihanna's 'We Found Love' and Beyonce's 'Formation' — Queen & Slim wears its nods on its sleeves, and its topicality as well. Combining an all-too-frequent real-life situation with cinema's "lovers on the run" genre, it's a statement piece that not only conveys an attention-grabbing story, but explores the constantly relevant issue of race relations in America. The movie's big-screen predecessors haven't been short on societal and political commentary. Whether charting true events in Bonnie and Clyde or skewering mass media sensationalism in Natural Born Killers, this field is full of films with something to say. And Queen & Slim joins a long line of recent features interrogating subjects such as racism, prejudice and police brutality in the US, too, including the Kaluuya-starring Get Out, plus The Hate U Give and If Beale Street Could Talk. But in blending its various parts into one provocative and passionate package, this is a supremely stylish and powerful addition to its various filmic folds.
They're never actually called by the eponymous names — and their real monikers aren't revealed until late — but Queen and Slim's fortunes change when they're pulled over for a minor traffic infringement. As the script by Master of None star Lena Waithe makes clear, their troubles also begin because of their skin colour. Soon the cop has been shot, Queen is injured and Slim is driving away as fast as possible. He actually wants them to turn themselves in but, thanks to her job, she's adamant that they'll never be treated fairly no matter what they do next — which means that they may as well abscond.
Initially, Queen and Slim are ordinary folks victimised by institutional discrimination, then forced to fight back. Soon, they're public enemy number one to law enforcement but heroes in the black community, which helps as they attempt to escape to Cuba via Florida. Given that it focuses on two people dashing across the US, Queen and Slim is a road movie; however it has as much time for the many faces the central pair meets along the way as it does for the scenery, and for their growing bond with each other too. With this in mind, some choices don't completely work — crosscutting a sex scene with a "black lives matter"-style protest in support of the two fugitives, for example — but generally, Matsoukas and Waithe convincingly capture how racial prejudice makes an imprint. From the inciting incident and panicked neighbours calling the cops on people of colour, to riots and other displays of solidarity, Matsoukas and Waithe cover a broad and necessary spectrum of scenarios.
Perhaps 'cover' isn't the right description. It's accurate, yet Queen and Slim never feels like it's assembling its array of episodic escapades by ticking its way through a list. Rather, this is a feature that wanders through a snapshot of African American life in a feverish and heightened fashion, all while seething with anger and intensity, pondering trauma and history, and never forgetting that, in its own way, it remains a date movie. In mood rather than meaning or political substance, Quentin Tarantino-written 90s crime flick True Romance casts a shadow. Queen & Slim exudes the same kind of cool, and the same type of affection for its thrown-together couple. And, as sleek and expressive as anything she's done before, Matsoukas's glossy visuals — as lensed to dream perfection by Tat Radcliffe ('71), and paired with the film's velvet, tiger stripe and snakeskin-heavy fashion choices — feel cut from a similar cloth.
To some, it might seem jarring to see Queen & Slim's story unfold with such eye-catching, intoxicating imagery. Earl's scantily clad girlfriends certainly stand out, but they also encapsulate one of the movie's main messages: about judging based on appearances only. The same can be said of the white couple (Flea and Chloë Sevigny) who help Queen and Slim. Actually, the same applies to the entire film. Telling an outrage-filled tale in a visually gleaming way, Queen & Slim's potency never falters, with no small amount of credit due to British model-turned-actor Turner-Smith and the always impressive Kaluuya. They're not just dynamic but dynamite as the reluctant outlaws — and, crucially, they turn in raw, textured performances that ensure their characters are people first, and victims, heroes, potential martyrs and countercultural symbols second.