Queen & Slim
Directed by: Melina Matsoukas
Written by: Lena Waithe
Starring: Jodie Turner-Smith, Daniel Kaluuya, Bokeem Woodbine, Chloë Sevigny, Flea, Sturgill Simpson, Indya Moore
“You’re willing to risk getting caught so we can go dancing?”
“Hell yeah! Let’s go.”
It’s in scenes like this where the beating heart at the center of Queen & Slim reveals itself. There is, of course, due deference paid to the harsh struggles black Americans face today: police brutality, racism, poverty, and the like are all depicted unflinchingly. But it’s when the movie slows down to catch its breath, to let its characters find joy, that it truly becomes alive.
Queen & Slim is a modern day take on stories like Thelma & Louise or Bonnie & Clyde, and covers most of the same beats that those stories entail. It’s how it covers them that makes Queen & Slim so striking. We’ve known the story of a pair of lovers on the run from the law. But from the crime that sets the title characters on the run, we have never seen that story used to shine a light on black lives. Not just their struggles, but also their triumphs, their fears, their loves, and all that comes in between.
When we meet our titular Queen and Slim, their partnership is already rocky: Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) is an educated, straitlaced, crusading lawyer growing weary and cynical with the world. She’s on a Tinder date with Slim (Daniel Kaluuya), a more laid back man who has taken her to an admittedly unimpressive diner. Queen, who had a soul crushing day at work, is simply looking for some companionship for the evening. In her words, she wanted to spend the evening doing something beyond her normal post-work hobby: drinking wine by herself.
As Slim drives Queen home, we see neither of them particularly enthused by the other, and it looks as if their first evening together will also be their last. Until the couple is pulled over by a police officer, who then pulls a gun on them. After Slim kills the officer in a moment of self-defense, the two realize their lives have changed forever.
From there, the film chronicles Queen and Slim’s journey across America, providing different glimpses of black lives across the way. And goodness, are the lives we glimpse in Queen & Slim beautifully complicated. Lena Waithe’s screenplay doesn’t stick with any one facet of the black American experience to focus on. It does show the threats of violence and tension that exists for them, yes. But, as the page quote demonstrates, Queen & Slim pays special attention to the moments of joy in black lives. Whether it’s dancing, holding intimate conversations with one another, or sharing a moment with a sympathetic shelterer, the film’s beauty truly comes to the front. Beauty that is assuredly assisted by Melina Matsoukas’ confident direction and Tat Radlciffe’s unbelievably gorgeous cinematography.
If there’s one area where Queen & Slim falters, it’s the speechifying that it lapses into. Occasionally, characters will lapse into dialogue that feels less genuine and more soapboxing, something that can stretch one’s willing suspension of disbelief. At its weakest, the film’s commentary almost stifles the otherwise gorgeous mood.
The film’s biggest asset, however, something that carries it through even its weakest moments, are Queen and Slim themselves. Turner-Smith and Kaluuya’s chemistry is electrifying, giving the growing attraction between their characters a pulse and authenticity to their blossoming romance. And that romance is more than enough to make Queen & Slim a truly memorable cinematic experience.