The debut feature film from Melina Matsoukas is a triumph. It’s a suspenseful, beautifully realised vision of identity, race and injustice, writes Caryn James.
As Queen & Slim starts, the hero and heroine are on a Tinder date sure to be their only meeting. She is an uptight lawyer with elegant long braids, and he is a religious, unambitious working-class guy with a charming smile. By the end, they have killed a white policeman in self-defence, gone on the run, and been transformed. She has cropped hair and wears a tiger-striped mini-dress borrowed from a prostitute. He has become bolder than he could have imagined. And this ambitious, exhilarating film has moved from realism to the mythic, and back again.
Starring the spectacularly believable Daniel Kaluuya and the little-known but charismatic Jodie Turner-Smith, Queen & Slim is a suspenseful, beautifully realised road movie with a wobbly romance. But that is merely the scaffold on which writer Lena Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas build their vision of identity, race and injustice, invoking today’s Black Lives Matter movement, the historic underground railroad leading slaves to freedom, and Bonnie and Clyde.
There has rarely been a more synchronous team of writer and director than Waithe (Master of None and The Chi) and Matsoukas (the television series Insecure and music videos including Beyoncé’s Formation). Waithe’s complex sense of characters and how they interact with a racist society is given visual expression by Matsoukas’s textured images.
The diner where the first date takes place is shot to look realistic but dramatic, the lights from its broad windows casting a luminous glow against a dark car park, a dynamic look echoed through much of the film. One famous moment from Matsoukas’s videos is Beyoncé, in Formation, sitting on top of a police car that is sinking in the floodwaters of New Orleans. Her images here are just as fraught and each scene is crammed with significance, from clothes to wallpaper to cars.
As Queen and Slim head home from the diner in his car, with its licence reading ‘TrustGod’, he sweetly says he was hoping they’d get to know each other. “No, I’m good, ” she snaps. When the car is pulled over by the police, each responds true to character. He is compliant, not wanting any more trouble, while she demands the officer’s badge number. When the officer grows belligerent, and they accidentally kill him, Waithe and Matsoukas reverse the familiar pattern of black drivers shot by white police officers. Queen and Slim know at once that there will be no justice under these circumstances.
As they travel from Ohio through the American South, hoping to escape to Cuba, the film depicts class differences, shifting identities, and what it means to be a black person in the US. When they arrive in New Orleans, they are in a run-down neighbourhood far from their past. They hide out with her uncle, Earl, (Bokeem Woodbine), the pimp. By then they have become viral sensations, captured on the dead officer’s bodycam, and Earl greets them by saying, “Well, if it isn’t black Bonnie and Clyde”.
In interviews, Waithe and Matsoukis have resisted seeing their film in those terms, and it’s easy to see why. Queen and Slim are not willful criminals. Yet the comparison also fits, because like Bonnie and Clyde they are outlaws on the run, and their crime soon has them ascend to the realm of folk heroes, a trajectory accelerated today by social media. They are not, in fact, called Queen and Slim on screen. We don’t hear their actual names until late in the story, another hint at their stature as mythic types.
Waithe’s screenplay reaches beyond the real to the stylised as one person after another, most but not all of them black, help the pair along the way in a show of solidarity that is both idealistic and complex. They are admired by a community tired of injustice and abuse, yet these two individuals are being lionised for a murder they never would have chosen to commit.
Their relationship and the changes in their personalities are, in a less intentional way, also more fantastic than probable. On that first date, Queen rolls her eyes when Slim bows his head to pray before eating. But she decides to say grace at her uncle’s, an unbelievably abrupt change, even in her dramatic situation. And while we’re meant to believe that they come truly to see and understand each other, their romance seems willed by the filmmakers rather than coming from the characters naturally.
After his breakthrough role in Get Out, Kaluuya continues to grow even stronger as an actor. He allows us to see how Slim’s craftiness and brash defiance of the law gradually rises to the surface, even while he keeps his charm and common sense. His performance overcomes the contrivances of the script, a feat Turner-Smith can’t quite match.
And Matsoukas makes one major misstep when she cross-cuts between Queen and Slim’s one sex scene in a car parked by the roadside in bright daylight, and a demonstration in support of them in a city they’ve left behind. People gathered on the street carry signs and yell, “let them go!” only to have the police violently charge into the crowd. The protest is visceral and raw, but the cross-cutting to contrast the two scenes, revealing how the legend of Queen and Slim has taken on a life of its own, lands like an unnecessary thwack on the head.
But that is a quibble. Queen & Slim taps into a current of social outrage and depicts it with vehemence, sympathy and two true artists’ visions melded into one.