Queen & Slim is the feature directorial debut of Melina Matsoukas (who directed certain episodes of HBO’s Insecure and Netflix’s Master of None), and was written by her and Emmy Award winner Lena Waithe. It stars Academy Award nominee Daniel Kaluuya and newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith as the titular couple, who are forced to go on the run after their first date takes an unexpected turn for the worse. After having dinner at a local restaurant, as Slim (Kaluuya) is driving Queen (Turner-Smith) home, they engage in some banter which leads to Queen taking Slim’s cell phone, which he soon grabs for and takes back. Unfortunately, during Slim’s reclamation of his phone, his car swerves ever so slightly out of the lane in which he’s driving, causing a police officer who’s been following him to turn on his lights and tell the couple to pull over, citing the failed execution of a turn signal as his justification. After the officer harasses Slim, making the decision to conduct a search of Slim’s car, including the trunk (for which he does not have a warrant), as well as pulling his gun on Slim for no reason at all, Queen becomes perturbed, exiting the passenger side of the vehicle to ask for the officer’s name and badge number, explaining that she is a state attorney. Whilst clearly announcing that she is reaching for her cell phone, the cop decides to shoot Queen, missing her just enough that he hits her leg instead, and in the mad scramble of self-defense to keep both himself and his date from harm, Slim manages to pick up the gun, killing the officer before he or Queen can be killed. With the ticking clock now set, and their faces plastered all over the news, Queen and Slim must travel deep into the American south in order to escape their would-be executioners, and hopefully survive long enough to find meaning, purpose, and love in each other’s company. The film also stars Bokeem Woodbine, Chloë Sevigny, Flea, Indya Moore, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, and Gralen Bryant Banks.
From its very first trailer, I expected Queen & Slim to be something special, maybe even good enough to crack the Oscar race as the indie to beat for the Best Picture nomination, largely on the strength of the premise and Daniel Kaluuya’s presence alone. I mean, how could a distinctly black riff on the Bonnie and Clyde story starring the lead from Get Out and scene-stealer from Widows, coming out in in the heart of awards season, with that premise and trailers that strong, not be a near-guaranteed hit with the Academy? The anticipation was astronomical. And, if we’re being honest, while the film did not quite meet the expectations I initially had for it, that’s hardly any knock against its overall quality, as this is a remarkably solid on-the-run story that takes great advantage of its modern twist and marks a remarkable feature debut for director Melina Matsoukas.
One of the things about this movie that one notices almost immediately is just how confident the direction is; I don’t think I’ve seen a debut this hot out of the gate since Bradley Cooper’s last year with his remake of A Star Is Born. But whereas that film had source material to pull from, and generations of people who already knew the story, Matsoukas’ feature debut updates its story for a modern audience that may be unfamiliar with its original incarnation, and manages to say something quite incisive about the US police state and justice system in the process. We know that the couple is innocent, but we also know that the justice system won’t see it that way, given their situation, so with every setback or pause they have to make in their journey together, the tension either stays where it is, or grows to a new level, weaved throughout every moment past the film’s opening ten minutes. Another thing one notices almost right off the bat is just how beautifully the film is shot, even as it moves through locations in the deep American south that one might not typically think of as rich in texture or aesthetic depth. DP Tat Radcliffe frames just about every image of the film for maximum aesthetic glory and thematic depth, so much so that in another year, one not this jam-packed with Oscar-hopeful candidates even in this category, a Best Cinematography nomination could almost be considered inevitable.
There’s an unexpected sweetness to Queen & Slim which its marketing managed not to fully disclose that I think may catch a lot of people off guard. Yes, it is absolutely a black riff on Bonnie and Clyde, and is very much updated for a 2019 audience, but whereas that legendary criminal couple were actual criminals already in love, these two main characters merely start out as black people living their lives who happen to accosted by an overzealous cop, and are sent on the run as a result of trying not to die in the process; in other words, they don’t start out as into each other as one might expect, rather becoming closer to each other the longer they have to run and the further they get along their way. With each obstacle conquered, with each test passed, they begin to trust each other, and a unique bond begins to form between the two that doesn’t seem romantic, but later reveals itself to be deeper than that, as these two become tied to each other in more ways than just being in the same situation. They really do have an almost perfectly equal amount of screen-time, since they start off the film together, and neither character outshines the other or attempts to steal the spotlight.
This is all thanks to the fantastic performances of the film’s two stars. Daniel Kaluuya is a hell of a performer, and we knew that from things like Get Out and Widows, but here, he gets to play a wonderfully subdued version of the “Clyde” character that we haven’t really seen before. As each character bonds with the other, we see them start to pick up traits from one another that they come to share, and as such, Kaluuya is able to turn Slim from this tender person that happened to get caught in a bad situation and did his best to protect his date through it, into a more confident, more sure-of-himself person who is less afraid to say what he wants or do what he believes needs to be done in order to survive. We buy every second of his transformation, and the same can be said of Jodie Turner-Smith’s Queen, as she slowly adopts Slim’s tenderness over the course of the film. The performance of Turner-Smith in particular is one near-guaranteed to impress just about anyone, as this is one of the strongest acting debuts I’ve ever seen. She moves in the frame as if she’s been doing this for years, and her icy yet confident exterior that slowly melts over the course of the film is only half the reason why. She’s exceptional here, matching Kaluuya beat for beat, even sometimes shining just slightly brighter than him in terms of performance, and when looking back at the best acting debuts of the 2010s, her name is bound to at least come up in the conversation.
For all its goodness, though (and there’s a lot of that), that’s all Queen & Slim really ends up being – good – and it feels as if there are just a few things holding it back from being great. It has a lot to say about the state of our current climate regarding the policing of black people and the brokenness of the justice system, made evident by the fact that an actual attorney decides to go on the run rather than try to pursue the courts, but it seems somewhat hesitant to say it, like it’s holding back a bit in an effort not to lose any of its audience along the way. It presents the idea of what deep injustice lies within its premise, but in an effort to stay focused on the “on the run” story at hand, it doesn’t seem to explore it enough to say much of anything we didn’t already know or hasn’t been said before.
The film also suffers from some noticeable pacing issues right off the bat, as the setup to the film is already done within its first ten minutes, and while I’m sure it at least partially had its intended effect, the jarring nature of not setting up the characters a whole lot before the action gets going feels a bit like a missed opportunity to endear us to the individual characters before their journey starts. Conflating this with a back half of the film that feels in a few spots as though it moves a bit too slow, and could do with some tightening up, it might have been better to give us more time to get used to the world and characters in the front half, and less time to wonder where the tension is going to in the film’s latter moments.
Still, regardless of some pacing issues and general hesitancy in what it has to say, Queen & Slim is a remarkably confident, solid on-the-run thriller with endearing characters, beautiful cinematography, and thrills to spare. The chemistry between the two leads is palpable, the updated black riff on the Bonnie and Clyde story for a 2019 audience is a brilliant story move on part of writer Lena Waithe, and as far as indie awards season fare goes, there’s not a whole lot better that you’ll find from November. Give this one a shot; I think you’ll find it worth it.
I’m giving “Queen & Slim” an 8.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.