Melina Matsoukas and Lena Waithe’s Queen & Slim is a black Bonnie & Clyde-esque tale situated in today’s America riddled with rampant police brutality and anti-black racism.
Our introduction to the duo marketed as Queen and Slim, played by Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya, is a dull Tinder date in a local diner. In the opening scene, the two, actually named Angela (Queen) Johnson and Ernest (Slim) Hines, don’t talk about much. Its an unremarkable date that Queen only agrees to when in need of company after learning her client was sentenced to death. Slim is a barbaric eater and a simple man who is seemingly not good enough for Queen.
But from this scene comes two gems that foreshadow the film’s most polarizing situations. Ernest reveals he hates photos and explains with “my mother and father know I’m here,” which is enough for him. While Queen insists they’re proof of his existence. And while defending her client against the death penalty, Angela professes that the state shouldn’t decide whether or not he lives or dies— remember these moments when viewing.
The two leave the diner together in a white Honda with the license plate “TRUST GOD,” while playing Bilal and bickering over his date-ready playlist and directions to Queen’s home, Slim swerves. Consequently, they’re pulled over by an aggressive white cop.
Reflecting reality, the situation escalates after a series of justifiable side comments from Queen, and the cop pulls a gun. Slim eventually kills the cop in self-defense, and the two are warped into accidental outlaws with a mission to escape to Cuba.
Throughout the remainder of the film, it tries to convince the viewer that Queen and Slim are falling in love, but I’d said they fell in “trust,” and they had to. The purpose of their journey wasn’t to sustain romance but to outsmart the police in the same fashion Assata Shakur did in the 70s. Their heist is filled with clever twists and turns along with vague parallels to Shakur but without intention. Queen & Slim aren’t necessarily revolutionary but just trying to stay alive.
The dialogue between the two falls flat, with very few learned about either of the characters. We know Slim has a father who refuses to rat him out to the police, but that is about all. Queen, on the other hand, has a complicated relationship with her uncle, who helps the duo in their escape to freedom. A few powerfully intimate scenes make up for the lackluster nature of their relationship.
Matsoukas’s direction is the shining star of the film. And if you’re not familiar with the name, she’s the woman responsible for Rihanna’s “We Found Love” video and Beyonce’s iconic “Formation” video. Queen and Slim travel from the film’s origins in Ohio to Louisiana, Georgia, and Florida, which is captured warmly and softly by Matsoukas along with cinematographer Tat Radcliffe. Matsoukas and Radcliffe’s focus on the rural south and the black bodies throughout the film is simply breathtaking, with shots of either Queen or Slim looking out the window or intimate car scenes all resembling beautiful portraiture.
Almost halfway through the film, the two visit Queen’s uncle “Earl,” a pimp and veteran, played by Bokeem Woodbine. Earl is one of the movie’s more complex characters where he serves as an anti-hero, with his abuse of women, hatred of the police, but a soft spot for his niece. The shots of his historic Lousiana home, the way the camera focuses on the bodies of the women he lives with, the iridescent, and blue lights that perpetuate the screen are a standout portion of the film.
Outside of the director and cinematography, Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya, successfully deliver despite the film’s lackluster script. The attempt at social commentary throughout the film falls short of saying anything uniquely profound. There’s a consistent bid in the movie to drive home the point of creating a legacy, but it becomes muddled.
During the movie’s pivotal protest scene, the son of a mechanic who fixes the duo’s car, Junior, shoots a cop in the face. He’s a black teenage boy who previously told the two that he wants to be remembered in the same way they’ll be—seemingly explaining his actions. Its intercut with a sex scene that aligns Queen and Slim’s sexual climax with the boy killing the officer. The scene is jarring and unnecessary with no insight into who Junior is and makes zero effort to decipher what Black teenagers feel amidst racial tensions in America. The only real depth comes from the photo that Junior previously took of Queen and Slim. It’s the duo’s way of documenting their journey and a symbol of black resistance aided by the boy.
The film ends with Queen and Slim eventually dying after being shot by the police, very reminiscent of Cleo from Set It Off. After uttering “can I be your legacy?” to Slim, Queen is killed first by the state similar to the fate of her client. It was a great way to connect the film back to its opening scene but offered nothing new in regards to state-sanction killings of Black people. There’s no shortage of tweets or newscasts depicting cops killing black people, and Queen & Slim‘s ending was just a beautifully shot portrayal of that violent reality.
Queen & Slim wasn’t necessarily a love story but a portrayal of what happens to two people, most importantly, two Black people, when faced with America’s most disturbing but familiar scenarios. During the 132 minute film, what’ you’ll see is beautiful, powerful, and seemingly moving, with a soundtrack to match. But once the smoke clears, there’s lots to be asked about what was actually said.