Racial justice and the outrage at its absence courses through the visual and emotional powerhouse that is Queen and Slim. There’s also the exhilaration that comes from watching talents new to movies seize their moment with a passion that pins you to your seat. Director Melina Matsoukas — and artist of Greek and Afro-Cuban heritage — is best known for music videos such as Beyonce’s “Formation”; she also helmed Master of None‘s brilliant “Thanksgiving,” episode of Master of None, the same episode that made screenwriter Lena Waithe the first black woman to win an Emmy for writing a comedy. Now they’ve teamed up on what’s being labelled “the black Bonnie and Clyde.”
Queen & Slim is more than that, of course — way more. Queen, played by knockout newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith, is a confrontational defense attorney who just lost a client to the death penalty. Slim (Get Out Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya) works at Costco and has a license plate that reads TRUSTGOD. Judging by their first Tinder date at a diner in Cleveland, a second date feels like a remote possibility. But on the drive home, a white cop stops them for a minor traffic infraction (“failure to execute a turn signal”). They protest. And after a brief, heated exchange, the trigger-happy officer shoots Queen, leaving her bleeding from a flesh wound. Slim picks up the cop’s gun and fires. It’s clearly self defense. While the white media label them cop killers, Queen and Slim (their real names are withheld till the final credits) find pockets of support and solidarity in a black America that sees the pair as one of their own. And after a stopover at the New Orleans home of Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), the two snap a photo that goes viral and turns the two into instant folk heroes.
Waithe’s script refuses to indulge in police stereotyping and introduces a white couple, played by Chloë Sevigny and Flea, who offer sympathy and assistance. But Queen and Slim’s notoriety also backfires when an impressionale boy (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) attacks a police officer just for wearing a uniform.
As Queen and Slim make their getaway to Florida and, hopefully, a flight to freedom in Cuba, Matzoukas slows the pacing to show the couple getting to know each other. They stop at a roadside bar where, of course, they are recognized; they’re also given the chance to stop the world and dance in a slow, sensual rhythm that they once took for granted. The sense of community in that scene, of black brothers and sisters offering the fugitives shelter from a gathering storm, is deeply moving. And the blazing performances of Turner-Smith and Kaluuya bring a distinct individual humanity to two people the world has turned into symbolic folk heroes.
The longer that Queen and Slim make their way across the American South, like runaway slaves in a millennial underground railroad, the more you find yourself rooting for them to get to safety. Matzoukas keeps the film moving to the beats of a spectacular hip-hop soundtrack and a potently percussive score by Dev Hynes. Working with cinematographer Tat Radcliffe (White Boy Rick), Matzoukas paints with light and shadow. The film’s one sex scene, as tender as it is erotic, is all about release. But Queen and Slim can’t stop looking over their shoulder, and the hope promised by the new Lauryn Hill song, “Comin’ Home,” seems painfully out of reach.
As the film moves toward its painfully inevitable climax, Queen and Slim fulfills the promise made by Waithe and Matzoukas to create a new form of protest art. Their film isn’t meant to lionize these two everyday people-turned-folk heroes, but to celebrate their strength and pride. At one point, an older black man tells them, “I would’ve took my ticket and been on my way.” Queen and Slim didn’t take that ticket. And they’re not going to let a white world crush in on them. Not without taking a stand.