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Queen & Slim Review: The Art of Survival

"Can’t Keep Runnin’ Away..."

By now, you’ve likely seen dozens of quotes that compare Queen & Slim to films like Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma & Louise. Queen & Slim shares more DNA with Richard Tanne’s heartfelt date movie, Southside with You. Director Melina Matsoukas teams up with screenwriter Lena Waithe to tell a sensual story about two potential lovers feeling each other out. But it’s also a searing social indictment that examines police brutality, repressed outrage, and daring to exist while black.

We meet Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) while they’re on their first date. They’ve matched on Tinder and have two different agendas. Slim is out for a good time, but his charms have no effect on Queen, who simply wants to take her mind off her problems. The tension mounts as they don’t agree on much. When Queen asks if this restaurant is the only place Slim can afford, the date is officially a lost cause.

A police cruiser stops Slim while he drives Queen home. The officer gives him a hard time for no reason. Queen, a defence attorney, will have none of it and shouts her disapproval. The situation escalates. The officer fires a shot at Queen. Slim leaps to her aide. He shoots the cop during the scuffle, and suddenly, Queen and Slim are fugitives from the law.

Although the officer’s dashboard cam records the incident, the duo doesn’t stick around to share their side of the story. They’re a black couple with a cop’s blood on their hands. And living in America in 2019, who can blame them for freaking out and taking off? Before long, they’re making national headlines as the new Bonnie and Clyde. The film follows the fugitives as they struggle to keep a low profile and make their way south to plan their next move.

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Queen & Slim isn’t a plot-heavy film; it’s all about character, dialogue, and atmosphere. And since the film lives or dies based on its two lead performances, casting newcomer Turner-Smith in the co-lead is a risk that rewards. Both Turner-Smith and Kaluuya are sensational in their roles and excel at highlighting the contrasts between the two characters.

Slim always looks like he’s cruising through life, accepting whatever nonsense comes his way. This is clear when a waitress serves him the wrong order. He’s fine with the mistake and doesn’t correct the waitress because he understands how tough her life is and he doesn’t want to pile on. Queen is a woman of principle. She sees society’s power imbalance and wants to level the scales. Queen has a defiant attitude, and she’s militant about always fighting the good fight. So when the cop harasses Slim without cause, she can’t remain silent.

What’s critical here is that characters don’t feel like soulless mouthpieces for Waithe’s point of view. This film is all about exploring blackness from various perspectives, and it’s essential that the lead roles feel lived-in as Queen and Slim convey their conflicting worldviews. Both actors bring world-weary depth and irresistible charm to their characters that make them relatable and easy to root for. Most importantly, Turner-Smith and Kaluuya have lovely chemistry, even when Queen and Slim can’t get along.

Matsoukas and Waithe make a few bold choices that will take some people out of the film, but Queen & Slim is still a tale about the day-to-day black experience. The United States abolished slavery in 1865, but blacks in America were never really free. For the next hundred years, blacks and whites couldn’t live in the same neighbourhoods, receive the same quality of education, or even drink from the same fountains. Racial prejudice is ingrained in the country’s DNA, and it’s a fact that black people must endure 24/7.

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Queen & Slim dramatizes the angst that haunts black people every time they step outside their door (and even when they don’t). Recently, there’s been a flood of incidents that involve white people calling the cops on black people who haven’t committed a crime – even when they’re innocent, police hassle black people at a higher rate than whites. And for many blacks, getting stopped by law enforcement is a life and death situation. In America, there are often consequences for black people who tread into “white spaces.” And this sad reality leaves two options: you can go into hiding or you can live your best life. Queen & Slim is all about the toll black people pay for daring to exist.

Queen and Slim may be on the lam, but their journey contains moments of beauty. Depending on how one connects with the film, these moments are either courageous or reckless. One scene sees the duo stop to steal a dance at an out of the way bar. Another sequence sees them pull over on the side of the road to admire (and then mount) a horse. Some audiences might see these decisions as plain stupid, like characters in a horror movie deciding to split up. But these “heightened” incidents magnify the constant threat that looms over black existence. If you’re trapped in a no-win situation, take whatever temporary joy you can get because it may be your last.

At times I found myself lost under Matsoukas’ hypnotic spell. Queen & Slim features a dreamy blend of poetic imagery, soulful performances, and heartfelt music. I’m down for any score that includes Bilal’s neo-soul classic Soul Sista. Matsoukas also slips in a haunting rendition of Pharcyde’s Runnin’, which feels custom-tailored for this film’s trailer. (It’s also the eeriest use of a hip-hop track since Jordan Peele used I Got 5 On It in Us). As the fugitives make their way south from Ohio, the music switches gears to region-specific genres, like New Orleans bounce music.

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Matsoukas’ music video background comes through loud and clear, and she packs the movie with gorgeous compositions. I’m impressed by her use of light and found myself dazzled by the red and blue glows cast off her actors’ beautiful black skin. As Queen and Slim head south, the colour palette transitions from cool blues and greys to warmer reds and greens. Keen-eyed viewers will notice how the film’s colour palette heats up to match Queen and Slim’s budding romance.

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Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe often captures Queen and Slim in ways that isolate them from the rest of the world, adding to the sense that they’re all alone. We see them drive down empty stretches of highway, slipping into the black of night without another car on the road. When they finally pull into a gas station, everything else in the frame fades away into shadow, as though the fugitives just stepped back into reality. You can’t help but hold your breath once they expose themselves beneath the gas station’s fluorescent lights. Matsoukas makes the audience feel like they’re on the run too.

Queen & Slim passionately interrogates the experience of being black in America. The trailers sell it as an intense fugitives-on-the-run picture, but this story is thoughtful and measured. You could trim 30-minutes from the film, and some viewers would still consider it long and meandering. Matsoukas also isn’t above throwing subtlety out the window to drive home a point. The film’s worst offence is the extreme lengths it goes to express its themes. The movie is made up of intimate and subdued moments until it’s not.

With its talented cast and harrowing subject matter, Queen & Slim is a beautifully shot meditation on the black experience. The film is a sensual love story, a scathing social commentary, and a cathartic power fantasy that screams with righteous fury. Queen & Slim demands to exist on its own terms, so the story really swings for the fences. Matsoukas and Waithe make audacious choices that will move you to tears or leave you agitated. Either way, you’ll get the message.

Queen & Slim is now playing in theatres.

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