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A contemporary take on Bonnie and Clyde, Queen and Slim’s narrative hook is so strong it’s almost incredible how long it’s taken for someone to write a story like this.
The film opens with the African Americans Slim (Daniel Kaluuya, Widows) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith, Nightflyers) on a Tinder date. The two don’t appear to get along famously. He’s slightly over-eager. She’s bored. But on top of being uninterested in her date, Queen is burdened by her career as a lawyer whose black client has just received the death penalty.
Yet despite their stiff back and forth and failure to gel, the two are about to be bound together. On the way to dropping his date home, Slim is pulled over by a white cop. Quickly tensions flare, resulting in the policeman shooting Queen in the leg before being killed in self-defence by Slim. Knowing as a lawyer what the system will do to the pair, Queen convinces Slim to go on the lam with her.
Written by Lena Waithe and directed by TV and music video helmer Melina Matsoukas (both having worked on Master of None), Queen and Slim succeeds for the most part thanks to its clever inversion of the ‘lovers on the run’ trope. The movie has all the action, glamourous production and sex appeal of the best previous iterations of this type of story. Yet, it’s given a timely ripped-from-the-headlines urgency by having the central heroes be victims of recognisable institutionalised racism, before, over the course of the narrative, becoming heroes and symbols of a larger protest movement.
To their credit Waithe and Matsoukas, despite Queen and Slim’s grim subject matter, don’t wallow in the misery too much. This is a story about strength and resilience. As the central couple traverse through the film’s stunningly picturesque backroads of America – with the goal of reaching Miami and then escaping to Cuba – a community of similarly disenfranchised African Americans come to their aid, helping Queen and Slim evade the authorities.
One of these people is Queen’s uncle Earl, played by the always terrific Bokeem Woodbine (Dead Presidents, Fargo). A former soldier in Iraq turned pimp living in New Orleans with several of his sex workers, he gives the pair shelter for a few nights. The character and performance serve as a solid metaphor for the movie as a whole. Earl is slick, vibrant, often fun but also undeniably haunted by the horrors of the real world.
Arguably the best scene in the film, meanwhile, sees Queen and Slim risk capture after a long day on the road to have their second date in a dim neon-lit dive bar (Matsoukas’ background in music promos results in colours that pop throughout, on top of some ace soundtrack cues). Terrified of being apprehended, the couple relax once the bartender tells the two she and her clientele support their cause and that they are safe. Their fear melting away, the pair later begin to slow dance intimately. The electricity here, and at a later graveyard stop, between Kaluuya and Turner-Smith is enough to convince audiences in their transformation from people who are stuck together to lovers destined for one another.
Where the drama stumbles slightly are the brief moments where it strays away from its central couple. Part of the narrative is devoted to Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), a young teen who the pair meet on their journey to Miami and who takes the wrong message from Queen and Slim’s killing committed in self-defence. Not only does moving away from the lead characters let the air out of the balloon in terms of pent-up claustrophobic tension, it feels too melodramatic – the vignette playing out like a beautifully shot after school special.
While not to the same extent, Queen and Slim’s final scenes suffer in a similar way. For a film that for so long feels fresh, stylish and like the work of true visionaries in Waithe and Matsoukas, it is frustrating that the movie’s ending is as predictable and standard as it is and yet another depiction of black pain. You are left wanting the Get Out (also starring Kaluuya) ending, one which highlights that ‘yes, real life is terrible’ but also feels fair to its lead characters and satisfying for the people who spent the whole drama gripped watching them fight to survive in a racist world. Instead, you just get the former.
Also, in its back half, much of the tension of Queen and Slim is watching the pair make silly unnecessary decisions that could get them found by police. In one scene, the two take turns sticking half their bodies outside a moving car window to feel the wind in their hair. Another sees them stop driving to ride a horse briefly as it was something Slim has always wanted to do.
Yet, while some critics have picked at the logic of these moments, it’s beside the point. Queen and Slim should be allowed to do whatever they please. In a just world, they would never be in the situation they find themselves. The great injustice depicted in the film and inspired by real life events is that the luxury to be free and to do whatever you want can often be reserved for the fairer skinned.