Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas (“Insecure”) and written by Lena Waithe (“Master of None”), was influenced by the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. A story about police brutality and the stress and horror of daily life for a black person in America, Queen & Slim is a gripping fictional film that feels all too real.
A first Tinder date– mediocre and uneventful– takes an unexpected turn. On their way home in a blustery winter night in Cleveland, a young couple are pulled over for a minor traffic incident. Slim (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith) are calm and cooperative. The situation soon escalates. The policeman wounds Queen. Slim, expecting to be next, grabs the officer’s gun, shooting him in self-defense. Now targeted as cop-killers, Slim and Queen go on the run. She is a successful criminal defense lawyer whose legal experience tells her that the court is unlikely to give them a fair hearing. Slim is, nevertheless, resistant in accepting that he is now a fugitive.
Unaware that the incident is captured on video and that the cop has a history of rogue murders, Queen and Slim unwittingly become a symbol of structural racism, trauma, terror, grief and pain for African Americans across the country. The video goes viral. The couple convince themselves that they should run, even though Queen knows that they are facing a death sentence. Slim is in denial. But they still hope for a miracle while unable to plan an escape. In this thriller, where a pair of young soon-to-be lovers are making a mad dash for freedom, the viewer is entangled emotionally with their inept effort, hoping against odds that they will survive.
Queen & Slim is a difficult movie to review. The film is deeply interesting, focused on legacy, the power of memory and the symbols that propel political and social movements. Queen & Slim frames the plot on the history of a nation infected by a racial inequality so virulent that good people are forced to take the law into their own hands. There is anger without apology, one of the most deeply moving themes in this movie.
The story is powerful, both politically charged and psychologically draining. The content of the film, however, is uneven and incompletely constructed. Slim and Queen’s characters are only loosely sketched, particularly their backstory. How did Queen become so successful in a courtroom often hostile to her clients? Why is her relationship with her mother so dysfunctional? How does Slim fall in love with someone so opposed to him?
Kaluuya’s performance as the reticent and pure-hearted Slim, in deep denial that a crime was committed, is worth watching in itself. And newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith matches his performance. Even though the characters often don’t act rationally, one has to be reminded that they are young, lonely, and want to have the thrill of romance. They suppress the reality that the police, at any moment, could overtake them.
More robust portraits of Queen and Slim–their interior lives– would create scenes more personally compelling as well as more memorable. Furthermore, the music track often disrupts the tension and momentum of the story.
Queen & Slim is a provocative, sometimes uncomfortable and frequently unsettling movie experience that is still very much worth seeing. It presents to the audience what it is like to have your grip on the world shattered while asking what use that grip was anyway.
Note: Available on Netflix.