Director Melina Matouskas’s directorial debut, Queen & Slim, is a devastating drama about a couple thrust into the spotlight after a traffic stop gone wrong. At least, that’s one way to read it. Another way is that the screenplay from Lena Waithe (The Chi) from a story she co-created with James Fray (A Million Little Pieces) is a poetic exploration of systemic racism and how, despite terrible losses, life continues on and the cycle never breaks. However you read the film, there is no other way than to think of it as a time bomb, one which you are never prepared for when it goes off.
Opening in a diner, the audience meets the nameless couple, portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya (Widows) and Jodie Turner-Smith (The Last Ship) with exacting perfection, somehow both in the middle of and at the start of their first date. She, henceforth known as Queen, is a lawyer having a rough day and He, henceforth known as Slim, is curious why she responded to his Tinder message after a prolonged silence since his request. As Slim drives her home, trying to maintain some high hopes for an extended evening, an innocent reach across the car to snatch his phone from her hands results in their car being pulled over. On that cold snowy night in Ohio, their lives change forever as the cop grows increasingly aggressive to the point of pulling his gun. Fearing for their lives, a scuffle breaks out, and the cop is left for dead. Recognizing that no matter the truth, a dead cop can only lead to one result, they run and, in doing so, head straight for infamy.
There’s a reason that the film is called Queen & Slim and a reason that the characters aren’t given names until the end of the film. Their story is a universal one for the African American community in America. Many share a common history of forced labor and marriage, of identity carved out in the little moments they were allowed and, even after the Civil War, have had to endure transgression time and again until even their cultural influence is given more rights and respect than the individuals who create it. It’s a chilling notion, one which creeps up on its audience only after the credits roll. So forget the ideas that Queen & Slim is another Bonnie & Clyde because Waithe and Fray go way deeper than trying to idolize criminality, go further than creating leaders out of killers. With Matouskas’s skilled direction, Queen & Slim becomes a meta-narrative about perspective, cultural pride, faith, and reform.
Consider a simple moment: immediately post-shooting, Queen ruminates while Slim drives, the song “The Best In Me” by Marvin Sapp blaring across the speakers. Moments like this one are frequent throughout Queen & Slim, as the music serves not just to offer a sense of the characters’ internal struggles, but how they see themselves. The song speaks of how God sees the best in us while others see the worst. This capsule moment exemplifies the larger concept of perspective which Matousakas examines, not just how we see ourselves, but how the African-American community is represented and the terrible cycle they find themselves in again and again. In this moment, it’s about Slim’s faith and whether his actions are all part of a larger plan, one which he both was destined to enact and is therefore serving God, or he was meant to die, in which case, he’s acting in defiance. Later, as the two spend more time together, he asks why do they — meaning the AA community — always have to excel rather than just be themselves. It’s a ponderance which may escape some, but it will linger within those who catch it. This reviewer considers the lack of proper names as means of making Queen and Slim symbols done wrong by a system which constantly presumes the worst. But symbols can’t change the world. Only the living can do that. So when small moments in the film offer chances for Queen and Slim to relax, even for an instant, to live once more like people, it feels like victory.
Kaluuya and Turner-Smith offer performances which form the energetic center around which everything revolves. They present a forced relationship, born out of fire and necessity rather than time, which serves the dual purpose of creating a natural tension between them as they can’t turn to anyone else for support which generates a terrible isolation. As the film rarely shows any other perspective than theirs, the ever-capable Kaluuya and Turner-Smith carry the bulk of Queen & Slim. The audience is only shown what someone else is doing when characters are linked, even tangentially, to the moment on-screen. Even then, when the two do find some kind of support, it’s minimal and short-lasting.
Through the performances and a tight script, the audience gleans everything they need to know about the pair (she’s a measured, excellence-seeking lawyer and he’s a man of faith working a menial position) before they are suddenly thrust into a fight for their freedom when a police officer racially profiles the pair. Even before the tussle which leads to the two running from police begins, Matouskas’s intimate approach to her direction presses the audience right into the mix of their dinner conversation and car ride banter, creating a tension that’s a mix of will-they-won’t-they and intolerable menace for what we know will eventually come. That tension never alleviates, not even once the credits roll, leaving the audience feeling nearly as physically and emotionally worn as the two characters. Across the six days of the films’ story, there’s a relentlessness which slowly seeps out from the screen and into the audience, impregnating a rising bittersweet inevitability within Queen & Slim — from the pair’s meeting, the traffic stop, and everything up until the conclusion — with an undeniable power that will shake audiences to their core and not just because of the manner in which Waithe and Fray crafted the story or the captivating direction by Matouskas, but due the horrible reality which exists outside the theater.
In theaters November 27th, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.