What if you didn’t know if you would live past your first date? Would you cut the person on the other side of the table more slack? Would you take more risks? Would you breathe in the air of this complicated world and live as if there were no tomorrow?
That’s what is at the core of Queen & Slim, a soaring, heartbreaking film about a mismatched couple — Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith — who sit down for a Tinder date at a black-owned diner in Cleveland.
The whole movie, actually, is that first date. After dinner, during an awkward discussion about what’s next, a cop pulls Slim’s car over. Queen is in the passenger seat, and being a defense attorney, she knows a thing or two about rights and searches. Officer Reed (musician Sturgill Simpson) has a chip on his shoulder, and Slim is doing his best to cooperate. In a scene that resonates with so many real-life incidents, Reed shoots first, hitting Queen, and Slim instinctively reacts, killing the officer.
The horror dawns on them, but not instantly. It’s as if their lives are flashing before them. It’s not the only time that the film slows down when you expect it to hurtle forward. Their decision to run unfolds, almost in slow motion.
After the dashboard video begins to circulate on social media channels, Queen and Slim become viral sensations. They are not trying to call attention to their actions, but they become heroes to black people, who have suffered the indignities of being pulled over, harassed and killed because of the color of their skin. Allies, even unexpected ones, assist them throughout their steamy, winding journey through the Deep South.
Along the way, they witness poverty and desperation, along with joy and freedom. A visit to Queen’s uncle, a pimp in New Orleans, is shocking in its raw depiction of the complicated relationship between him and the two women he lives with. A scene at a worn juke joint where Queen and Slim dance to a wizened blues band is haunting in its beauty.
There is so much poetry in this film that I must not spoil. The film, directed by Melina Matsoukas, is both a relevant social commentary and a timeless love story. Olayuu and Turner-Smith turn in some of the year’s best performances: grounded, aching, dazed and profoundly sensual.
Lena Waithe’s screenplay is a marvel. Like its predecessors, Bonnie and Clyde or Thelma & Louise, it’s about experiencing freedom while on the run. This is Waithe’s debut solo film script, but she does have an Emmy on her mantel for the excellent “Thanksgiving” episode of the TV series Master of None.
As a work of social commentary, Queen & Slim is powerful and surprisingly subtle. As a romance, it is utterly devastating. As a character study, it takes two awkward, mismatched people and shows how being thrown together in the toughest of circumstances creates chemistry and deep connection. Its power has been growing inside me ever since I saw it, with new branches taking root. It should be required watching in the Black Lives Matter era.