Early on in Queen & Slim, after our inciting event of police brutality sets our titular duo on the run, a character greets the pair with the line “weell, if it isn’t the black Bonnie and Clyde.” The analogy is an easy one to draw, both that historic pair and our protagonists a man and woman on the run from the law. Except, Bonnie and Clyde made a conscious decision to up and turn outlaw. Queen and Slim had no choice.
Queen & Slim
Director: Melina Matsoukas
Release Date: November 27, 2019
After a dreary first and, what would have likely been, last date, “Slim” (Daniel Kaluuya) drives “Queen” (Jodie Turner-Smith) home until an arbitrary police stop halts their evening. The prodding officer, seeing two black people in a car at night, pushes well beyond the realm of reason, resulting in violence, a slain cop, and two lives ruined.
Queen & Slim‘s inciting act of violence could strike an audience as unfounded or haphazard, and that’s exactly what it should be. The level of absurdity seen in the true stories of police antagonizing and murdering people of color can only be depicted as such in our fiction, with first time (feature film) director Melina Matsoukas hitting the ground running, the pace picking up immediately. But beyond that initial thrust, things start to mellow out.
Clocking in at well over two hours, Queen and Slim’s odyssey across the Southern US is a road movie of episodes, wherein their flight has them bumping shoulders with the small towners both sympathetic and opposed to their crime. The easy-come pacing of Queen & Slim means that the filler, seemingly random moments of character and roadside drama, isn’t actually filler at all. The film is founded on the journey, running the risk of the simplicity of our story making the entire piece feel a little long in the tooth. It drives a long way to get to a place the audience will likely see coming early in the film’s runtime, but Queen & Slim has a way of keeping you entertained along for the ride.
For one, it’s an incredibly good-looking movie. We’re taken through an American underbelly not necessarily of crime and darkness, but small towns where people scrape by on little and struggle with a lot. A stop at a bluesy dance hall isn’t the only kind of mellow on display, and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe has the eye for the rustic. Our palette is rich in saturation and contrast without appearing to be an over-stylized “Instagram movie,” where filters distract more than add. He and Matsoukas coordinate smart framing and tone to give us the slightest changes in feeling as the fleeing couple passes through different states. With its soundtrack blaring loud and a readable pattern in its editing, Queen & Slim can sometimes feel a bit redundant, like a travel log. But the beating heart of its characters comes in to save any tiresome moments.
Kaluuya and Turner-Smith have a solid chemistry… as a couple that doesn’t start with much chemistry. The aforementioned sour date that pairs these two up develops over the course of the film into a relationship founded on a deep care for one another, as well as empowerment for the other. Diamonds form under pressure, with Queen and Slim forced to see each other’s appeal because of their predicament.
Besides our leads the film populates its vision of America with a number of charismatic faces, including Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), a New Orleans-based hustler whose rage and violence towards women is characterized as a by product of his own problems; staying over the night while they plan their next move, Queen mentions how he was changed by his time in Iraq. Other characters come and go through the story with some celebrity cameos that manage to be great surprises and, shockingly, not distracting, and through the tableau of minor characters we get a consensus on the reluctant-outlaws’ crime. Since the shooting that rocked their world, Queen and Slim have gone viral, inciting protest and support from hundreds of thousands. Matsoukas keeps our eyes on the road for the most part, smartly telling the story of the couple’s fame through the reaction of those they meet, rather than pulling us out for a grand view of the story.
Though it might focus primarily on the events as they unfold, rather than their implications, Queen & Slim doesn’t beat around the bush. This isn’t so much of an angry film as it is a desperately puzzled one. The events that push Queen and Slim on the lam feel all too plausible, their reactions almost incredulous. They don’t go on a warpath, there’s no robbery spree; though they eventually acknowledge themselves as becoming emblematic of something bigger than just two people, they aren’t swaggering pop cultural icons. They just want to be free.
The importance of never forgetting the very real and very dangerous plight that so many face by the police that would protect them is a subject more than worthy of a story, and in this sense Queen & Slim accomplishes bringing to the table a blunt and digestible tale of a country consumed by racism and injustice in the most casual of ways. Yet is it enough to simply announce a problem? I would never ask a single film to provide a magical answer to a societal ill; Queen & Slim or any single work of art isn’t responsible for curing America’s police brutality towards minorities. That’s on us as a country. But what the film could be asked for is a little more of its thoughts on the matter. Queen and Slim are so busy escaping the law that their movie perhaps becomes a little too comfortable with living in the moment, indulging in the stylish visuals and editing, and the deeply-felt but ultimately-minor escapades along the road.
Yet for any criticism that might be leveled at what Queen & Slim doesn’t do, we can double down on what it does do. And for the most part, it does all of it very well. It’s a plea for peace and a statement of intent. The idea of legacy comes up between the couple, as they drive along one of America’s lonely country roads. In talking about what he wants out of life, Slim has made his peace with not becoming rich and famous, adored by the world; a partner who loves and remembers him is all he’s after. To be remembered by someone is a powerful thing. So while we might not be able to pull a lot of detail or nuance from Queen & Slim, we can walk out of the theater knowing full well that it’s one to remember.