Queen & Slim ★★★1/2
On the lam: love and fate
The buddy/road trip is a common genre in films, among them 2018’s Oscar-winning – and controversial – “Green Book” and 1991’s “Thelma & Louise.” As one of the characters in “Queen & Slim” says, “Well, if it isn’t the black Bonnie and Clyde” (film version, 1967).
“Queen & Slim” is a fresh take on the trope, and not solely because the protagonists are black. There’s an element of surprise at several turns, including a significant political dimension that—while it doesn’t use the term—embraces the Black Lives Matter movement, critiquing aspects of the white establishment, notably the police.
When they meet at a diner on a Tinder date, Queen, majestically portrayed by 5’9” Jodie Turner-Smith, is a practical, calculating, wary and mistrustful defense lawyer who has decided she likes living alone and has – and wants - no connection to her family. Slim, a reliably engaging Daniel Kaluuya (nominated for Best Actor for 2017’s “Get Out”), is religious, abstemious, trusting and naive.
Their lives are upended, and their lives’ trajectories changed, when Slim kills the white officer who confronts them during a routine traffic stop. Slim insists the shooting was in self-defense (it’s not presented as that straight-forward in the film), and Queen insists he’ll be killed by the system if he turns himself in. They go on the lam.
Reminiscent of the much-maligned “Green Book” (2018), in which a white working-class driver and a black pianist learn to appreciate each other as they drive through the American South, Queen and Slim slowly come to see each other’s perspectives. He becomes more comfortable with the risks they are taking and more willing to embrace their predicament; she reveals a caring for family and religion that previously she had not allowed herself. Unlike “Green Book,” their roles are equal.
First-time feature director Melina Matsoukas, mostly known for short videos of black music divas (Beyoncé, Rihanna) expertly intercuts the personal story with the political one. James Frey, famous for making up his 2003 “memoir,” “A Million Little Pieces,” co-wrote and co-produced with Lena Waithe (a producer of 2018’s “Ready Player One”). All three bring firepower to this latest in a series of excellent recent films on being black in America. In addition to “Get Out,” these include “Moonlight” (2016), “Hidden Figures” (2016), “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018), and “Black Panther” (2018).
In Queen and Slim’s progression along the back-country roads of the South, they encounter, somewhat like Bonnie and Clyde, and to their surprise, sympathizers—mostly black, but some white: the folks in the black roadhouse who offer free drinks and thumbs up; the man they ran their truck into at the gas station store who acknowledges their celebrity with a fist bump; the white couple (Chloë Sevigny and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea), who hide them in their home; the young boy (Jahi Di'Allo Winston) for whom they are heroes; the black cop who contemplates letting them go. And there’s Queen’s Uncle Earl (an appropriately bling-laden Bokeem Woodbine), the first to shelter the fugitives, who is patronized by scantily clad young women who live with him. As one of them explains, “he’s nothing out there,” so inside his house, “he’s a king”– and treated like one.
Queen and Slim’s encounters with these and other characters reveal the many ways in which black people resent and yet find ways to cope with the injustices meted out by white society. As varied as these responses are, the film does not shrink from the suggestion that hatred of the police and black adulation of the fleeing couple can have unexpected and tragic consequences.
The dominant story is nonetheless the personal one, a long-developing love story between a man and woman as different as Tracy and Hepburn, Bogart and Bacall, or Grant and Russell (to name some white ones). Queen and Slim find freedom, and love, in what Queen calls their “journey,” as thrilling as it is perilous. In one of many car conversations (over a wide-ranging soundtrack—of course, they like different music), Slim explains to Queen the desire for legacy through those who live after us—whether babies, each other, or the admirers who turn a simple photograph into a shrine.
They will have a legacy, but not one they have worked for, or expected, or wanted.
Director: Melina Matsoukas
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Chloë Sevigny, Flea, Jahi Di'Allo Winston
Runtime: 132 minutes