Going to the movies can feel a lot like agreeing to a blind date: It’s normal to feel a little wary — but also a bit excited — at the potential before agreeing to spend two hours with characters you don’t know. If the film is any good, it wins you over early on, enough so that you stick around to see what happens to these strangers you’ve only just met. But the dynamic works best when there’s instant chemistry, which isn’t always the case — as director Melina Matsoukas (one of seven filmmakers involved with Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” project, specifically responsible for the star’s “Formation” music video) discovers in her highly anticipated narrative debut, “Queen & Slim.”
The title couple get off to a bumpy start, both with audiences and with each other, in Matsoukas’ visually arresting, socially conscious riff on the outlaw-hero genre. Two African American singles on what will prove to be one of the worst first dates in cinema history, they swiped right on Tinder, and now they’re meeting up in person. Slim (Daniel Kaluuya of “Get Out”) works at Costco. He drives a Honda with a trunk full of sneakers and a vanity plate that reads “TrustGod.” Queen (newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith) is a lawyer coming off a very bad day in court. A client she defended got the death penalty, and she’s trying to distract herself from the injustice of it all.
The pair make awkward small talk at the restaurant, which is one of those old-timey diners like the one in “Pulp Fiction.” Slim likes the place because it’s black-owned, but Queen assumes he’s just being cheap. The way things are going, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of these two ever having a second date. Then things take a turn. As Slim drives her home, a police car pulls them over. The cop is surly, suspicious and white.
Recognizing the danger, Slim plays it cool, obeying the officer’s orders as politely as possible. Queen knows her rights and isn’t shy about asserting them, and when she reaches for her phone, the situation spirals out of hand, fast. The cop starts to wave his gun around, discharging a shot in her direction, and Slim knocks him to the ground, grabs his weapon, and bang! Now there’s one less racist cop in the world, and Queen and Slim are about to become what the script calls “the black Bonnie and Clyde.”
There was a time in Hollywood when the Production Code required movies to condemn criminals and treat the police with respect. “Queen & Slim” offers a different perspective. It hails from a world in which cops shoot first and ask questions later, even during a routine traffic stop when the driver is black. These days, it’s increasingly tough to find depictions of honest law enforcement on screen, and while the cliché of the trigger-happy white cop is starting to wear thin with overuse of late, “Queen & Slim” isn’t trying to cut corners by leaning on that trope. Rather, the movie challenges: Even in a time of dashcams and citizen protests, who would ever believe that a couple of cop killers were acting in self-defense?
Sharing story credit with novelist James Frey, “The Chi” creator Lena Waithe has written what seems like a snappy, high-attitude script, in which “Touché” becomes a frequent, flirtatious refrain as the title pair bicker. Repartee might drive the screenplay, but Matsoukas is less interested in the pressure-cooker romance that’s developing between Queen and Slim than she is in what the pair represents to audiences, slowing down the pace and allowing the couple’s getaway to sprawl over more than two hours. The director sees an opportunity to turn these two fictional characters into vigilante heroes, or martyrs for a cause, or both, and rather than play it frisky and in-your-face, she goes for iconic.
The soundtrack, the style, the overarching sense of tragedy and defiance — all of these elements contribute to her vision of “Queen & Slim” as an overdue “Easy Rider” for African American audiences, the sort of movie meant to embody and elevate a segment of society accustomed to being depicted as criminals and miscreants. When a movie taps a nerve with the public, it doesn’t need to be a masterpiece to become a phenomenon, which might explain why Matsoukas puts greater attention on the look, feel and musical signature of the project than she does the plot, which feels thin and familiar: Innocent couple gets caught up in a crime and must run for the border before being gunned down by the authorities.
At least Bonnie and Clyde were permitted to enjoy the ride, whereas Queen and Slim know they’re being tracked and aren’t sure whom to trust. What impresses both us and them is just how much solidarity they encounter on the road to Florida — where they intend to escape to Cuba, à la Assata Shakur. If the dead cop represented the most reductive kind of stereotype (and saw them in equally one-dimensional terms), nearly everyone else surprises by acting other than a flash-judgment of his/her profile might suggest (as evidenced by the very next officer they encounter, who treats them with concern rather than suspicion at first).
After the initial shooting, the pair are instantly notorious, their faces splashed on TV screens and the next day’s front page. Many see them as heroes (it turns out that the same cop killed someone two years earlier), while others at least give them the benefit of the doubt. They meet other “good cops” along the way, as well as a white couple (played by Chloë Sevigny and Flea) who prove empathetic. If anything, it’s the lead roles, as interpreted by Kaluuya and Turner-Smith, that seem underdeveloped, owing to a pair of improbably cool-under-pressure performances.
After stealing a pickup truck, Queen steers them to her uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), an emotionally damaged Iraq War vet turned pimp whose harem of scantily clad women assist in making over the two outlaws. Queen and Slim leave his house behind the wheel of a turquoise Pontiac, sporting the killer burgundy tracksuit and leopard-print miniskirt that will come to serve as their signature look, photographed at one of the stops along the way, where an activist kid (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) is sparked to misreading their example and attacking an officer.
The movie may be a long-overdue reaction to the oppression of law enforcement and the white power structure upheld by the Production Code, but it recognizes what censors feared all those decades ago — that the public can be catalyzed into a fervor by such depictions — and it incorporates a critique of that reaction into the film itself. In 20 years, will college kids hang “Queen & Slim” posters on their dorm room walls, the way they display “Reservoir Dogs” and Che Guevara today? Doubtful, although the approach ought to resonate with audiences today, presenting the already smoldering discussion of police brutality with a what-if scenario in which the oppressed stand up to authority. In “Queen & Slim,” two relatable black adults refuse to be shot dead for no reason and challenge a system in which they’d surely be sentenced to death for doing so — whereas the cop would likely get off if he’d killed them both on the side of the road.
As the lyrics to Tiana Major9 and EarthGang’s “Collide” put it, “When we collide, it’s a beautiful disaster.” Music plays a key role in “Queen & Slim,” and though the film otherwise bears little resemblance to Matsoukas’ work on Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, the director assembles a bound-to-be-legendary hip-hop soundtrack — including “Comin’ Home,” a new single from Lauryn Hill — to infuse the movie’s silky, laid-back style with a deeper resonance. What momentum the film has comes not from the pursuit (the police seem far off-screen till the climactic confrontation) but from the tight percussive beats of Dev Hynes’ score.
To achieve the film’s signature widescreen look, with its velvety texture and shadows so deep the characters’ features sometimes disappear into the dark, Matsoukas enlisted DP Tat Radcliffe, who also shot Yann Demange’s “White Boy Rick.” On that film, Radcliffe brought a grubby, gritty edge to things, but here, the idea is to elevate and immortalize. “I just want people to know I was here,” Queen says at one point, and the movie honors that desire, shared by practically every member of their generation, by making Queen and Slim the heroes of a story so often told from the other side.
More on “Queen & Slim”: