This riveting romantic thriller from director Melina Matsoukas (TV’s Insecure and Master of None; Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ video) has already been branded “the black Bonnie and Clyde” – perhaps partly because that’s how a key supporting character describes its protagonists. But actually, Queen & Slim feels more like a contemporary spin on Ridley Scott’s classic feminist road movie Thelma & Louise. Where that film gave us Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis on the run from a justice system rigged in favour of the patriarchy, Queen & Slim gives us Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith on the run from a justice system rigged against people of colour. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, that obviously gives it a serious and vital topical edge.
Queen & Slim opens with a bang. Its first scene is funny, economical and well observed: all hallmarks of screenwriter Lena Waithe, who created acclaimed drama series The Chi and won an Emmy for her work on Master of None. Kaluuya and Turner-Smith’s characters, both unnamed, are on a last-minute Tinder date which seems like an immediate mismatch. When she asks if the low-key Cleveland diner they’re eating at is “all you could afford?”, he regains the upper hand by saying he likes it there because it‘s “black-owned”. As he drives her home, knowing he probably won’t be invited in, they’re pulled over by a white cop (country singer Sturgill Simpson) who quickly exposes himself as a trigger-happy racist. The cop shoots first, but Kaluuya’s character grabs the gun and shoots more accurately, killing the cop on the spot. Turner-Smith’s character, a seasoned criminal defence lawyer, knows the odds are completely stacked against them. From this moment on, they’re always going to be the black couple who “killed” a white cop. Their only option is to drive off and, he suggests, escape to Cuba.
Waithe’s smart script turns the duo into very contemporary folk heroes: when footage of the shooting is posted to social media, they’re embraced as “Queen and Slim” by large swathes of the black community who are tired of racist white cops aiming guns at them. This support helps them evade the authorities, aided along the way by favours from Queen’s uncle Earl (Fargo’s Bokeem Woodbine), a damaged war hero with a tragic past, and a surprisingly well-prepared white couple Earl knows from his military days (Chloë Sevigny and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea).
Queen & Slim’s final few scenes are the most memorable and affecting of a film which tenderly encourages loyalty for its antiheroes as they gradually gain affection for one another. Both Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are terrific: this could and should become her star-making role, much as Get Out became Kaluuya’s. A brilliantly nimble and evocative score from Dev Hynes heightens visuals which are already as potent and stylish as you’d expect from the director of Beyoncé’s totemic ‘Formation’ video. At times, it almost feels as though Queen & Slim is trying a little hard to feel iconic, but if Matsoukas and Waithe’s film does achieve cult classic status, it’ll certainly be well deserved.
- Director: Melina Matsoukas
- Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine
- Release Date: 31 January 2020