About midway through Queen & Slim, a sheepish Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) asks the defiant Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) if she would have gone on a second date with him. “No,” she’s quick to tell him. At this point, they are driving from Ohio to Florid cashing in on every favor the world owes them and everyone they know to get out of the country. “The black Bonnie and Clyde,” Queen’s uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) dubs them. Not quite.
The chief difference between this 2019 couple and the Great Depression duo who became the subject of the classic 1967 film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway is a matter of freedom. A racist cop pulls Slim over as he’s driving Queen home for nothing more than a slight swerve and a missed turned signal. The story goes as it has gone between too many white cops and black drivers, and Slim finds himself with his hands up and a gun pointed at him. When the cop ends up firing at Queen, inflicting a flesh wound, it’s act or die for Slim, and after a scuffle, the new acquaintances wrapping up a mediocre Tinder date are left with the body of a dead cop and no witnesses to tell their story. Self-defense isn’t a crime, but history tells us it won’t go down that way. It’s the very lack of freedom this cop bestowed upon them that forces them into the life of runaway bandits.
Lena Waithe’s script so smartly takes the skeleton of Bonnie & Clyde and pumps it full of fresh blood, ripping the privilege of that film’s spirited antiheroes away and replacing it with two well-developed human beings in an impossible situation. This subtle inversion of an old story lends further tragedy to the difficult race relations of today. Unlike Bonny and Clyde, you’re not rooting for Queen and Slim because their fun is infectious, you root for them because everything they’re going through is so wildly inhumane.
And yet, an incredible facet of Waithe’s script is how the world around Queen and Slim reacts to their journey. They’ve become heroes to folks all around the country protesting and fighting for the needless violence against them to end. By film’s close, they are symbols of revolution, their status having evolved in the background of their fleeing. Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are both savvy enough keep fear in the eyes of their characters so the tone stays grounded in the very real danger Queen and Slim are in. Waithe includes moments of levity in their story, but they never interrupt the humanity at the core of these two or the tension first-time director Melina Matsoukas expertly builds throughout.
Turner-Smith is the true breakout here, though. As Queen, she is strength and perseverance incarnate, while never ascending to the Internet superhero the world wants her to be. She’s scared and vulnerable, and the actress finds that, as well as the chemistry needed with an also game Kaluuya to bring the emotions home. These two don’t start out in love, but a closeness forms over time, deliberately paced out over the first two thirds, occasionally at the expense at the overall momentum and energy. Once it’s there, however, it’s a beautiful display of romance that retroactively imbues some of the film’s slower moments with a low simmer—not to
mention with the moody soundtrack backing it up.
From a filmmaking standpoint, Matsoukas and her cinematographer, Tat Radcliffe, evoke a strong sense of place in the various Midwest and Deep South locations Queen and Slim escape to. From the cold, barren back roads of Ohio and Kentucky to the blooming sense of humid history in Louisiana and Florida, the film visually creates cultural safety nets for Queen and Slim throughout that help build their journey into a more thoughtful introspection on black history in America. At one point, they drive by a white man on a horse supervising his black workers on a farm, and it becomes apparent that there’s no escaping the otherness those in power placed upon them generations ago.
Therein lies of the importance of films like Queen & Slim. Separately and together, these are two beautiful, independent souls worthy not only of the love they can afford each other, but love from their fellow persons. Minor pacing issues aside, Matsoukas roars onto the scene as a director to watch, while Waithe as a writer continues to express in a way that is invaluable. Together, they make this a remarkably powerful work that truly earns its anger.