The opening of Queen & Slim, a Tinder first date between a Black couple (Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, both excellent), is at first a cute back and forth. Two very different types thrust together less by want and more by need. Ernest Hinds aka Slim (Kaluuya) gnashes at his food, loves God. Angela Johnson aka Queen (Turner-Smith) is reserved, revealing that she only agreed to the date to soften her pain; she’s a lawyer whose client was executed that very day. This is the first, but most certainly not the last, examination of death and killing in America and from the Black experience and allusion to seemingly inevitable outcomes.
Leaving their date, they get pulled over by police officer (a scary Sturgill Simpson) for failing to use a turn signal and the situation escalates so quickly that actions move faster than words and the cop is shot and killed and Queen is wounded herself. All of this is caught on dashcam footage, which is released to news organizations and social media, setting off a firestorm of a manhunt. After absconding with a truck from a good Samaritan (who turns out to be a sheriff), the two flee through Kentucky all the way to New Orleans to the home of Queen’s uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine, channeling a bit of Dave Chappelle), a man with a stable of prostitutes and a debt to Queen. The two must change their appearance and for Queen that means losing her braids (“I’m not shaving my head! she says). It becomes one of the film’s softer moments as one of Earl’s girls (Pose‘s Indya Moore), carefully unbraids her hair, giving her a natural short crop that, for me, immediately evoked Grace Jones.
The two fugitives become folk heroes of sorts, traveling through the south finding shelter and cover in a world virtually unseen by white America – Black-owned businesses and establishments, necessary respites of freedom that are as crucial now as they ever have been. After a long night of driving, Slim just wants a moment of normalcy and more so, a true second date with Queen. They enter a roadside bar for drinks and dancing and when the vivacious and flirty bartender gives Slim drinks on the house, it’s not simply a come on; “you’re safe here,” she tells him.
After a decade of exceptional television direction and some of the most vibrant and evocative music videos ever, Melina Matsoukas’s stunning feature film debut thrusts her into the forefront of crucial storytellers. Many music video directors default to music video style and milieu for their first films at the sacrifice of story but Matsoukas brilliantly avoids those trappings and luxuriates on location and a true sense of place with great assistance by Tat Radcliffe’s gorgeous cinematography. Not simply satisfied with this story being a “Black Bonnie and Clyde,” as one character calls them, by making this story so specifically Black (the way that Thelma & Louise‘s is so specifically female), it’s not just two lovers on the lam – they aren’t even that yet, they’re not just fugitives, they’re emblems of a deeply systemic and historical imbalance of power, rights, perception and treatment.
It’s impossible to ignore the allusions to everything from Mark Twain to the Underground Railroad that Lena Waithe peppers into her fiery screenplay. Prison workers on the side of a highway evoke slaves and jolts Queen out of a moment of freedom. After finding safe harbor in Florida with the white couple Uncle Earl led them to (played by Flea and Chloë Sevigny), it’s cut short by a terrifying moment of sure capture that finds Queen & Slim with only seconds to hide. Where they eventually find themselves echoes back to Uncle Earl’s comment that the police are as ravenous as slave runners trying to catch runaways.
Despite a few missteps along the way, a subplot about a mechanic’s son who finds courage and idolatry in Queen & Slim stretches the bounds of plausibility and pace, Queen & Slim finds so much tragedy and beauty in moments big and small that the eventual, and inevitable, finale on a Florida tarmac to Cuba is a searing and sobering reminder ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ is a day to day reality for Black America, and joins films like Fruitvale Station and Blindspotting as important stories that must be told and must be told from and by the Black perspective.
Queen & Slim was the Opening Night film of the 2019 AFI FEST. Universal Pictures will open the film on November 27.