When we first meet the titular characters of Melina Matsoukas’s arresting debut feature – the director having cut her teeth on music video production for such artists as Beyonce, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez and Alicia Keys – their first date appears as if it’ll be their last. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith in a career-making first feature lead) is a somewhat hardened criminal defence lawyer, practicing law in a state that bases its “evidence” on the colour of a person’s skin rather than the determined facts. Slim (Daniel Kaluuya, solidifying his dynamic on-screen presence) has an everyday-man presence about him, more likely to abide by the law and lose himself among the crowds rather than stand defiant.
On their drive home – where the conversation all but confirms a second date isn’t on the cards – the two are pulled over by a police officer, a slightly nervous, evidently racist power-tripper who draws his gun on them despite Queen and Slim giving no reason for this action. Tragic circumstances unfold and in a near-instant they are fugitives on the run, unaware of the impact their plight will have on the outside world and the dividing politics.
Driven by the false hope that their sanctuary lies in Cuba, Queen and Slim – the two characters known by these monikers for the majority of the movie – seek momentary refuge at her uncle’s “haven” in New Orleans; Bokeem Woodbine providing an electric presence in these sequences as Queen’s uncle whose questionable and tragic relationship with her gradually unfolds as the movie progresses. Given the literal price hanging over their heads the duo never stay in one place for too long, and as they transfer from one hideout to another (an underground railroad-type society of supporters making their presence known throughout to assist them where necessary) their love and respect for one another similarly evolves.
Though specific reference to Bonnie & Clyde is noted, Queen & Slim is a much different beast entirely. For starters there’s no murderous rampage per se, Queen and Slim are thrust into villainous roles not by choice, and it’s evident that Matsoukas and screenwriter Lena Waithe (TV’s Master of None) were looking to inspire conversations regarding race and the hostility towards black lives under unproven circumstances. It’s a specifically detailed and layered film – its most provocative moment intercutting the brutal consequences of Queen and Slim’s unintentionally-inspired uprising with raw images of their lovemaking – one that feels deliberate and purposeful in its observations, securing audiences’ thoughts to linger long after the shocking finale has imprinted on them.
An immersive experience that transcends its road-movie constraints, Queen & Slim – as narratively contrived it may be on occasion – ultimately succeeds off its own honesty and emotional weight; the story at hand always remaining in control of its power even when it threatens to derail through narrative implausibility.