From Queen & Slim’s opening scene, it’s clear that this film will shape up and turn into another love story. Boy meets girl (on Tinder). Boy tries to impress girl (and fails). Boy hopes for another date (and obviously won’t get it), but that’s where this story takes a turn and injects some life into this tried and true formula, when the non-couple is pulled over by a bullying white cop. An encounter that ends with the woman slightly wounded and the cop dead.
The two, one a defense attorney (Jodie Turner-Smith) and the other a Costco employee (Daniel Kaluuya), obviously lack chemistry, but now they’re inseparable. And as one character later refers to them, “the Black Bonnie and Clyde” is born.
The film soon turns into a very stylish hot-pursuit flick that surprisingly isn’t as fast-paced as it should be. The movie is kind of drawn out at over two hours and focuses much more on the visuals, particularly the beautiful skin tones of our two main characters and against their backdrops. This combination is often breathtaking at times, which also allows for the film’s underlying message to shine through.
Queen & Slim definitely isn’t afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve. Sometimes this does become a distraction, however.
When the first trailer for Queen & Slim dropped, comparisons immediately went to the aforementioned 1967 crime drama, Bonnie and Clyde. And just like with that film, Queen & Slim follows a couple who’s on the run from the law, and unintentionally sparking a revolution in the process.
But where Bonnie and Clyde‘s revolution came more from its glamorized impact and sensationalism shown in the press at the time, Queen & Slim takes a real-world turn while showing how the media and the press of today know how to work all the angles that fit their various agendas to manipulate society.
In fact, director Melina Matsoukas’ debut feature questions why Bonnie and Clyde became so popular. Is it that the movie starred two beautiful white people living a wild life of crime before dying in a blaze of glory? And what does it say about how crime sprees starring African-Americans have been portrayed?
To watch Queen & Slim isn’t just to see a call to action regarding the issues affecting Black people today. It is to question everything about how movies, politics, and history have been racialized for popular gain.
The stylish if implausible (at times) movie changes scenery frequently, going from Cleveland to New Orleans to Florida, as we spend much of our time getting to know “Queen & Slim,” with neither actually being called this on screen.
Queen’s political and an atheist. It’s also clear that she has a traumatic backstory involving her mother and then we soon find out through bits and pieces that her Uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) is also deeply involved in this traumatic experience.
Slim is close to his dad, never drinks, and a churchgoer. The license plate on his car even reads “TRUSTGOD.”
We see from the outset of Queen and Slim’s quest that they’re normal people trapped in a no-win scenario, propelled by fear. Yet when they begin to become folk heroes fighting back against police brutality, they begin to transform. Their initial caution giving way to a recklessness that feels more narratively convenient than logical.
Even the pair’s dynamic flips without warning or reason, as the reserved Slim turns into the more assertive of the two while Queen transitions from a cold pragmatist to someone who indulges in every dreamy flight of fancy.
Matsoukas incorporates into the film a great deal of imagery that links the fears and anxieties of today’s African-Americans to the history of racist abuse. It’s in the sight of prisoner chain gangs working rural fields in an eerie echo of slavery, and in the network of both black and white people who help Queen and Slim along, a contemporary Underground Railroad supposedly leading them both out of the country.
One stop on this “Underground Railroad,” has them taking shelter with a White couple (Chloe Sevigny and Flea) whose background isn’t really explained but their hideaway-outfitted home brought allusions to this and parallels to Anne Frank’s.
Such loaded imagery intriguingly places Queen and Slim against a wider backdrop of exploitation and resistance, but soon the context is used only as background shading for their relationship as it strengthens. Where the characters first seemed to exist as an embodiment of the pressures of American black life, that political commentary is eventually externalized to make space for a more generic lovers-on-the-lam romance.
The developing romance isn’t especially credible, but at least Turner-Smith and Kaluuya don’t oversell it. Their performances are engaging and subtle, and Matsoukas helps them out by putting much of the most florid dialogue into voiceover rather than their mouths.
The climactic showdown at the end of the film makes little sense as a culmination of the narrative but succeeds by the logic of the film being a grand opera, so it works.
Queen & Slim is much more interested in myth-making than storytelling, and viewers who don’t care that much about the latter will definitely buy into the former.