“Queen & Slim” is a social commentary packaged as a film, beginning with a bang. It kicks off when Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) shoot a police officer in self-defense and find themselves on the run. Slim somewhat innocently thinks his action will be justified in court, but Queen, a weathered prosecutor, knows different.
Director Melina Matsoukas, a two-time Grammy winner best known for music videos, collaborated with production designer Karen Murphy to bring the real world to the screen. While filming a current-day script mostly on location might seem fairly straightforward, production crews know that’s never the case.
The script specifies only certain stops in the road trip, so Murphy mapped out an actual route for the pair. “I made a road map quite early in the [process] and gave it to every department,” she says. “I drew where it was starting, how long that would take and the drive. Then I knew what temperatures were in that city and the small cities they’d go through.”
Determining a route informed the design process. Two gas stations along the way serve as prime examples. The first, on the outskirts of a big town, “is jammed with product and distraction,” says Murphy. By contrast, the next is in a farming community. “It was meant to feel a bit slower and like they were quite out of place in that spot. It’s quite sparse, the colors are really muted, and it’s a little bit like from another era.”
Aside from the early scenes that were shot in Cleveland, the rest of the locations were split among various places in Louisiana, including the neighborhood bar where Queen and Slim go dancing on their second date.
The interior was actually one of the oldest neighborhood bars in Treme, Louisiana, a space Murphy says she fought for since the energy felt right. But that doesn’t mean it was camera-ready. Murphy’s work included building a stage, repainting and re-lighting the interior.
“Juke joints are a thing that is a real phenomenon in the South,” she says. “And we really, Melina and I, enjoyed that set a lot.” They worked over Mardi Gras and the bar held parties even as the crew were inside working.
“I got to talk to a lot of the folks and hear a lot of their stories,” says Murphy. “Some of them were musicians and they would give me ideas. It was actually a really great way to embrace the community.”
While the interior felt right, the exterior wasn’t, since it was in the city and the script implied a more isolated space. The production employed a common bit of movie magic and used a different bar for the exterior. Though that building was too big for what they wanted, from the front it looked intimate enough to match the other location. Murphy had the art-deco exterior painted and aged, and added corresponding signage and lighting.
Locations can be great, but the spaces don’t “offer us anything decoratively,” says Murphy. “We brought that.”
The parking lot became an opportunity to showcase the historic car community of New Orleans. “Often on the weekends there’s parties [under the freeway] and people bringing their cars out to show what they’ve done to them,” says Murphy. “They’re really proud of them, and we were trying to speak of place.”
Cars play a major role throughout the film, and all were chosen with care. The small, white sedan that shows up first came from an all-too-real experience. While scouting in Cleveland, Murphy watched a police car pull over a similar vehicle for no reason.
“That image. That cop car with the lights. The vulnerable little car with the big, scary car behind, that visual in that street context was incredible,” says Murphy, adding, “This is real. The police do pull people over for absolutely no reason and it happened right in front of my eyes.”