”A black 21st-century riff on Bonnie & Clyde” was the synopsis nutshell doing the rounds after the release of Queen & Slim in the United States, late last year. While this description makes sense on a superficial level, it certainly isn’t one that will do the film many favours (for a start, they aren’t fugitive career criminals, they’re fugitives due to sheer bad luck). Though it definitely possesses American New Wave sensibilities, it isn’t a cat-and-mouse action film featuring set pieces and lurid violence, but a wonderfully strange, deeply intimate character study of two people as they are forced into an odyssey of self-discovery, existential threat and uneasy, burgeoning romance.
As the film opens, the titular characters are in the middle of their first Tinder date, and it’s pretty awkward, to say the least. He is a laid-back, thoughtful retail worker, while she is a guarded and impatient defence attorney with an air of condescension in her demeanour. As attempts to break the ice are stifled by offhanded gestures and an inability for one to really read the other, it becomes quickly apparent that this will be the first and last time these two will see one another.
With the tension and Queen’s latent hostility still unabated in Slim’s car as he gives her a ride home, the evening takes a sobering turn when sirens and blue lights begin blaring behind them, and he is made to pull over for alleged failure to execute a basic driving manoeuvre. The white policeman is highly discourteous and unpleasant from the word go, leaving no uncertainty that he is happily prepared to detain them, or worse, unless they obsequiously follow his every demand, regardless of how unreasonable it is. Rightfully, neither of them are prepared to tolerate this patently racist horseshit, the cop escalates the situation into violence, and Slim ends up shooting him dead with his own firearm. This is no longer the night where he will be beating himself up over the ways he could have made the date go better.
Queen’s force of personality and ample experience with the U.S. judicial system convinces Slim that if they don’t want to spend the rest of their lives behind bars or meet death in the form of another cop’s gun or lethal injection, the only resolution is lamming it. Thus begins a suspenseful, lyrical and moving journey that is tightly acted by all players and satisfyingly unpredictable in narrative structure.
Firstly, the film appears to have met some level of derision owing to bold and unusual scripting, but I received those as nothing but strengths that bolstered the overall experience. Several laboured scenes of dialogue and quasi-surreal moments of character development almost threaten to derail the film’s momentum, but ultimately serve as devices that further humanise the duo for the audience, and is more than appropriate in the context of their being mythicised by the black American public for taking the ultimate stand against an unfair system, despite the fact that neither of them wanted to do anything but go home and continue life as normal. It carries something of a weird atmosphere that is characteristic of the many road movies made against the backdrop of 60s/70s U.S. counterculture, with Queen & Slim encountering a variety of characters both friends and foes, while always maintaining its finger on the button of the fact that these two are in this situation because they are black, a fact that is catalytic with regards to their options and interpersonal interactions throughout the film. Despite the cries of more reactionary digesters of cinema, the way the two are treated throughout the picture does not come off as propagandistic fantasy, but an all-too-real evocation of things that almost exclusively happen to minority individuals faster than you can click your heels. If the most cursory glance at American social history isn’t convincing enough for you, then more recently headlined names like Eric Garner and Philando Castile may give you pause.
The chemistry between the two leads, Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, manifests as an initially uncomfortable but ultimately highly emotional and substantive relationship between two people who, whilst being unified by race, couldn’t be more different in their motivations and positions on the social strata but are forced to get to know each other thanks to extreme, life-changing events. Queen’s initial coldness gives way to raw and honest admissions about a difficult and painful journey to where she is today, and Slim’s relaxed, empathic sensitivity and respect for her position as an independent woman slowly pave the opening for mutual cooperation and respect, eventually leading to much stronger feelings between the two. Kaluuya is an actor of immense talent who has impressed me before and since his breakthrough performance in Get Out, blessed not only with a gift for highly authentic verbal delivery but also a superb knack for emoting with facial expression and body language. Turner-Smith, a model who has had bit parts in various television series and music videos, shines in her first main role here, taking Queen’s initial unlikeability and infusing it with a pathos that compels the audience to develop an admiration for her as strong as Slim’s. Their differences suffice to make their connection feel all the more natural and predetermined.
Another excellent aesthetic choice is the soundtrack. Taking a predominantly diegetic form of Slim’s iPod playlist as the couple drive from state to state, it is richly emotive in its use of hip-hop, soul and R&B, utilising the work of heavy hitters such as Luther Vandross, Lauryn Hill, Roy Ayers and Afrobeat titan Fela Kuti, as well as more millennial gems like Devonte Hynes a.k.a Blood Orange. Director Melina Matsoukas has spoken of her intent to honour the legacy of Black music and the diversity found therein, and she could not have pulled it off better. An early sequence shows the two arguing over Slim’s constant playing of tunes, him asserting that it’s the one and only thing capable of calming his nerves, her angrily rebuking that she can’t hear herself think. Eventually and with subtlety, it’s one more aspect that poignantly serves to fortify their bond.
A smart, brave and touching adventure, it redefines the tropes of the thriller, romance and message movie genres with a unique vision that throws back aesthetically while remaining very much rooted in the present day. Rich in commentary with regards to America’s problems with police brutality and general race relations, it also offers a comprehensively humanistic look at the longing for companionship, believing in things that transcend oneself, be it a tangible social cause or a higher power, and that doing the right thing is often a matter of subjectivity. It’s a commendable film, and I really hope it gets the wide audience it deserves.