It’s pretty hard to imagine another American movie in 2019 that emits the fury and frustration that sets Queen & Slim ablaze in its opening minutes. Written by Lena Waithe and given a somewhat lyrical gloss by director Melina Matsoukas in her feature debut, this somber meditation on police violence against people of color is a flawed but occasionally powerful indictment. Matsouka’s fast and furious filmmaking doesn’t always click, but it can sometimes crackle with purpose, reconfiguring the lovers-on-the-lam trope into an emotional black-lives-matter lament. At the same time, the characterization of Queen & Slim as a “black Bonnie and Clyde” — as they’re called out in the script itself — does a disservice to both ends of the equation. Arthur Penn’s seminal outlaw saga was more of cultural statement on sex and violence in mass media, whereas Queen & Slim uses a similar narrative framework to explore more heartfelt concerns embodied by a very different set of protagonists.
When first meet Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya), they’re enmeshed in an amiable first date at an Ohio diner (neither of them are ever actually referred to by those names). She’s a disillusioned defense attorney with a confrontational personality. He’s religious and more than willing to let a little thing like a waitress getting his order wrong slide. They don’t seem like a great match, but the playful flirtation is still there. But the whimsical romance doesn’t last long before darkness overtakes the frame. It’s when he’s driving her home that a cop pulls him over for failing to signal a turn. Things escalate from there with fatal consequences, as they have in so many cases involving traffic stops and trigger-happy police in America. For Slim, the white officer askes him to step out of the car, forces him to open his trunk and pulls out his gun after Slim throws the man a harmless smarmy remark; Queen bursts out of the car, citing her background as an attorney and jumping to Slim’s defense and announcing she’s going to grab her phone and record the event; the officer turns toward her and shoots her in the leg, which is followed by Slim lunging toward him ensuing a skirmish, with the cop ultimately winding up dead.
This dynamic setup practically works as a masterful short film on its own terms. However, from that explosive showdown, Queen & Slim takes a breather and relaxes into a much quieter sort of movie. Realizing their options are limited, Queen guides them to a hiding spot at the drab New Orleans home of her uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), where they lay low as the media reports pile in. Earl, a crude, hot-head troublemaker who has his own history with the law, suffers from a shrill, one-note quality that strikes an immediate contrast to the measured outlaws on his doorstep. That issue plagues Queen & Slim throughout, as so many of the figures that the characters meet in their ensuing journeys feel like they’ve been reverse-engineered to suit the allegorical agenda at play. However, the uneven narrative is occasionally balanced by a simmering undercurrent of cultural resentment. Yes, Waithe’s script seems so eager to fly into the dilemma that it leaves the characters of Queen and Slim in a half-developed state as it rushes through a string of new developments that don’t really deepen their personalities that much as the story goes on. But that becomes less of an issue once the drama grows bigger than the inadvertent bond they share.
News coverage from the dash cam footage of the killing shows the couple’s innocence, if not their exoneration, and soon their stardom takes on a paradoxical dimension: Cop killers in the press, victims to angry communities around the country, and heroes to a growing number of people who see their escape in symbolic terms, Queen and Slim seemingly mean something to everyone. The actors work overtime to make the unlikely events hold together. Kaluuya, whose wide-eyed irritation and wry smile always make him a compelling presence, embodies the clash of ambivalence and involuntary celebrity at the center of the movie. Turner-Smith on the other side exhibits a ferocious survival instincts in tandem with convictions about their right to keep moving ahead. The movie is at its sturdiest when its exploring the way repressed outrage can find catharsis in the fantasy of lashing out. In one sequence we find the pair seeking help from a black mechanic and as they wait for his work to be finished they wander by the coastline with the man’s admiring son, who looks up to their budding legacy. The trio’s dialogue soon drifts into voiceover as cinematographer Tat Radcliffe’s imagery transforms the exchange to a mediation on black dreams undercut by a system that gives them no hope beyond the potential to romanticize their struggle. (There’s a touch of Moonlight in that sequence as well.)
As the movie progresses, the scope of Queen & Slim continues to expand and the filmmakers can’t seem to keep a handle on the unwieldy metaphorical quality of the material, as a steamy sex scene is cross-cut with an anti-police riot for a sequence that overstates the message even by the movie’s own blunt terms. One big twist in that sequence also strains credibility and seems almost at odds with the circumstances leading up to it. But even when the movie stumbles, the emotion still holds pretty strong. Queen & Slim has been designed to provoke reactions and draw viewers into its discourse on the maddening state of black life in America, and what it takes to find a proper outlet across the country. And to that end, it often relates to the dueling quotes from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. which close out Do the Right Thing, with one characterizing the way forward in violent protest, and the other calling for peace. Queen & Slim doesn’t find new answers so much as it sits at the center of that same problem with a vivid fixation of solidarity, not making things black or white, but grey. It essentially being a plea to anyone who can relate to its concern to recognize that they aren’t alone in that struggle.
But even as Queen & Slim asks tough questions, it struggles to fuse them together into singular whole. It may not even be proper for this white critic to fully assess the success of its messages. But Queen & Slim certainly joins a robust narrative trope by confronting an ongoing division that American society has yet to figure out. From Fruitvale Station to Monsters and Men and Blindspotting, this decade has seen plenty of potent attempts to turn the persecution of people of color into a new kind of cinematic rage. Queen & Slim embodies that troubling historical moment not in spite of its puzzling twists and messy circumstances, but because of them. No matter the embellishments at hand, we’ve seen this story before, and it’ still disgraceful as ever. Queen & Slim definitely has its flaws, but it occasionally balances them through becoming a nuanced portrait of legacy and self-preservation, and a powerful indictment of police brutality in America.