Cast: Daniel Kaluuya (Slim), Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen), Chloë Sevigny, Bokeem Woodbine (Uncle Earl), Flea, Indya Moore, Sturgill Simpson (Officer Reed), Benito Martinez
Director: Melina Matsoukas
Screenplay: Lena Waithe
Director of Photography: Tat Radcliffe
Editor: Pete Beaudreau
Music: Blood Orange
Genre: Drama, Romance
Rating: R for violence, some strong sexuality, nudity, pervasive language, and brief drug use.
Run Time: 131 minutes
In Melina Matsoukas’ debut feature Queen & Slim, the two main characters of the film’s title (Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen, Daniel Kaluuya as Slim) go on the lam after getting involved in the shooting of a police officer. The film follows the couple as they dodge the law and travel to Florida in the hopes of hopping a plane to Cuba. On the way, they are abetted by various people who have seen and been inspired by the viral dashcam footage of the couple’s altercation. Queen and Slim become symbols for those who support what the two fugitives represent. But what exactly do they represent? The film raises questions about black interactions with the legal system, about when or if violence ever becomes an appropriate response to state oppression, but stops short of giving answers. Instead, Queen & Slim leaves its audience to sit with the feelings from which these questions originate.
The opening scene of Queen & Slim is characterized by an anonymity that is retained throughout the rest of the film. A smartly dressed woman sits across from her nondescript Tinder date at a diner in Ohio. The diner’s greenish fluorescence and casual chatter suggest it could be any diner in America, and so could the couple. Both characters remain unnamed until much later. In fact, they are never referred to as “Queen” and “Slim,” except implicitly by a belated title card after the shooting incident.
The diner scene makes clear that the couple have little to no chemistry, at least initially. Their dinner conversation establishes that she swiped right on him because she was having a bad day — she is a defense attorney and one of her clients was sentenced to death — and she did not want to be alone. She doesn’t believe that the state should determine a person’s right to live, guilty or not. He is religious and easy-going, and she is neither. A series of events must conspire to elevate this nameless “she” and “he” to the allegorical plain of “Queen” and “Slim.”
The diner scene concludes and she and he are about to part ways, but the two characters’ fates become intertwined by their encounter with the law. It begins as a routine traffic stop and plays out predictably. The officer is relentless and domineering. He discharges his weapon in the heat of the moment. Our protagonists manage to wrest the gun from the officer and fire it in self-defense, but they flee because they know the law will not be on their side.
The violence in the shooting scene is unprovoked, which makes it seem inevitable. The officer comes across as a stereotypical bully who pulls his gun because he feels disrespected. The only suggestion of his humanity is in the background — a picture of a child taped to his patrol car’s computer. We eventually learn that the officer had previously killed an unarmed black kid, but receive no further details about the incident. Again, there is a suggestion of anonymity — that the officer could be any officer. He is “The Law” and Queen and Slim are black (every)bodies that come into contact with what he represents.
The shooting scene signals a break from realism that gets more pronounced as Queen & Slim moves along. It telegraphs that Queen & Slim is interested in probing issues of police brutality beyond particular instances of violence against black bodies. The violent collision of images like The Law and blackness drives the film’s narrative forward by holding the nature of such violence in the space of allegory, that is, outside the space of time and particularity. The effect can be jarring sometimes, as in two instances where the actors stop talking but their voices continue to sound over their unmoving lips. Other times, the effect is visceral and impactful. One sequence cuts back and forth between a protest and Queen and Slim making love. The tension of each scene feeds back into the other before reaching a parallel climax that entails another shooting involving a young boy. It’s one of the film’s most controversial scenes, and exemplifies Matsoukas’ ability to create discordant emotions through juxtaposition.
There is an epic quality to Queen & Slim that emphasizes the importance of the journey over the destination. Matsoukas doesn’t rush; we spend plenty of time with Queen and Slim and share their fears, sadness, and joy. The film seems to meander at parts as a result, avoiding the conclusiveness of an ending. The final shots of Queen & Slim reassure us of its allegorical figures’ timelessness, with artists dedicating community murals to “the black Bonnie and Clyde” and children sporting shirts emblazoned with the couple’s photograph. This timelessness is even reflected in the film’s soundtrack. Contemporary hip hop to Duke Ellington and John Coltrane to blues to Luther Vandross are diegetically woven into the film, stitching together scenes or inviting us to immerse ourselves in each moment. Coupled with Tat Radcliffe’s cinematography, the audiovisual display in Queen & Slim is vibrant and warm, and accentuates the conflicting emotions the film tries to evoke. These emotions, and the odyssey that gave them breath, will live on long after the screen fades to black.