Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Not merely names, they’re heart-wrenching symbols of the seeming unimportance of Black lives in America. Their fates: a standing fear for Black men and women, summon greater dread than any film could. Nevertheless, what if a movie did open on such truthful ground? In Lena Waithe’s screenplay for “Queen & Slim,” a Black couple on their first date drive back to their respective homes. Polar opposites—one God-fearing, the other an atheistic lawyer—they will most likely never cross paths again. However, a police cruiser pulls them over. The officer escalates the routine stop, leading to the two defending themselves, firing a gun, and then fleeing after their deadly actions. So opens director Melina Matsoukas’ powerful debut feature “Queen & Slim”—a meditation and celebration of the Black experience, and an at-times searing condemnation of an apathetic white America.
“Queen & Slim” is an extraordinary Black Odyssey; a film whose tracks reverberate with echoes of the underground railroad. Waithe’s screenplay first finds the couple in a nondescript town in Ohio. Soon they run to Kentucky. Over 150 years ago, the Ohio River served as an emblem of freedom for runaway slaves. Queen and Slim, in an inversion of the past, while evading the law, hope to travel south to freedom—as far south as Florida or Cuba if they must. Along the way, they befriend the region’s vibrant population, Black Americans who have long existed as a silent majority in their relationship with the police, but proud in the fashion they live their lives.
Furthermore, several loud and quiet figures scatter across Matsoukas’ film. There’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine): a pimp and war veteran with a penchant for abusing his stable of scantily-clad women. Woodbine’s Uncle Earl doesn’t receive near enough screen time to unpack his many traumas, and his ongoing violence against the sexually powerful women who care for him, but every second he’s on-screen adds varied colors to a simplistic story of escape. Other abettors include a politically stodgy mechanic (Gralen Bryant Banks), his fervent son Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston): who’s left in awe of the two outlaws—and a white couple played by Flea and Chloë Sevigny.
The scant character development pins Matsoukas’ drama as a winding string of evocative vignettes: sometimes threading smoothly and other times diverting our eyes from the potential of the narrative. “Queen & Slim” spins aground during the road sequences, hung together by dreary aerial drone montages of the couple traveling through the south, adding little emotional context to an unruly 132 minutes. The editing also unspools the mood—drastically altering the tenor of a scene from playing poetically to rigid jumps in time and location. When those lyrical instances hit: Slim regretfully crying into a mirror, Queen watching as her braids are shaved away, the cross-cutting of cinematographer Tat Radcliffe’s gorgeous nighttime tableaus to intimate confusion—Matsoukas’ demonstrates the promise of her young career. When they don’t, the film meanders and leaves intriguing questions pertaining to the supporting cast unanswered.
Nevertheless, “Queen & Slim” repeatedly rediscovers its center—the importance of representing the Black experience in full—in her two leads Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith. While difficulties lay in finding a comparison to Matsoukas’ drama, it’s somewhat reminiscent of “BlacKkKlansman” in its scope of presenting varied shades of a culture, and the pairing of a dewy-eyed man with a down-to-earth (maybe militant) woman. Here, Kaluuya is the perfect picture of tenderness. A shift from his upsetting performance in “Get Out” and his dark twist in “Widows,” he plays Slim as a naive lamb: a man aware of the slaughter but too trusting of the wolves. Kaluuya first allows the viewer to mine the optimistic glint in his eye, and later descend and explore the wreckage of a man who’s lost everything but his faith. Moreover, Turner-Smith is incredible. Previously seen in Cinemax’s series “Jett,” in Matsoukas’ film Turner-Smith’s provocative turn actualizes the trauma of Black exceptionalism: a thirst for perfection that’s left Queen alone and faithless. Both Kaluuya and Turner-Smith owe a great debt to Waithe’s easeful script, their striking chemistry jumping off-page and screen.
The two are opposite sides of the Black spectrum: the passivity of religion—the belief in an unalterable destiny determined by God—and the forfeiting of a simple existence for fear of letting yourself and your race down. Moreover, religion and excellency draw from common anxiety: What do we leave behind? For Black America: witnessing assassinated leaders, families torn apart, generations stricken from existence—the question doesn’t provide a singular answer. Instead, an undullable pain. Because pressure is the legacy, left in greater-and-greater sums to the next generation of lambs. Queen and Slim spend their time together living life to the fullest—like feeling the breeze run past their hair as they hang outside their car windows, driving by a gorgeous sunlit coastline.
Matsoukas further enlivens the Black experience through the places Queen and Slim visit. In one memorable scene, the two stop at a juke joint for a drink and a dance. Like Beyonce’s “Formation” video—which Matsoukas is most known for directing—and the vivid photography of Birney Imes, this drama depicts a way of life unseen by white America. It’s Black love, Black bonds, Black rebellion, a Black ebullience. A potential left undestroyed, unlike a crushed cocoon. And when Queen and Slim dance away into the night, safe in one another’s arms: surrounded by a stomping riffing Blues band and energetic couples swaying to the rhythm of their passions, the Black Southern milieu requires no explanation. Their love, their care for the other’s welfare, their jarring and elegiac ending, makes them endearing symbols of what makes Black America an equal cut of resilience and heartbreak. And for that matter, why Matsoukas’ “Queen & Slim” is the shot heard round the world. [A-]