“Queen & Slim” opens with two unnamed protagonists we must presume to call Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) being served a rather dour diner dinner. He blesses the food while she prays this ill-advised Tinder date concludes soon. Queen, an attorney, explains that’s she’s having a bad day — her client was executed by the State of Ohio earlier that day. Sadly the devoutly-religious Slim can’t charm her.
On the drive home, a police officer (Sturgill Simpson) pulls over Slim’s car for standard driving-while-black reasons. Queen tells him pointedly, “You like to shoot first and ask questions later,” and he quickly proves her point by firing and grazing her thigh. As she falls, Slim hops on top of the cop and shoots him dead. Kaluuya, excellent in this film, registers immediately he has signed his death warrant — cops can kill black citizens without punishment, but not the other way around.
Having sinned, he freezes. But Queen takes action, throwing their cell phones out and directing him to drive south. They reach their first safe haven, in New Orleans, under the flamboyant protection of Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine). He greets the already notorious couple with comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde and the Black Panthers. When the outlaws have to make a run for it, they’re lucky enough to borrow the loud clothes worn by Earl, presumably a pimp, and his coterie of ladies — a burgundy sweat suit for Slim and a skimpy animal print dress and snakeskin boots for Queen.
In Earl’s turquoise Pontiac Catalina, they continue their flight in hopes of hopping a plane in Florida and escaping to Cuba. Their love on the run road trip includes many allusions to how the journey might end — in one chastening scene, they pass a team of incarcerated men hoeing dirt alongside the highway under the eyes of white overseers on horses.
Melina Matsoukas directs from a script by Lena Waithe and the film works best when cultivating a prickly vibe between the improbable heroes. When Slim asks, “Would you have gone on a second date with me?” Queen snaps back, “No.” Later, taking a break at a dive bar with a great band, the bartender pours two bourbons. Slim says, “I don’t drink,” and she retorts, “Maybe you should start.”
Too often, “Queen & Slim” strives to make the leads iconic figures rather than actual characters. A slide into sentimentality in Act III follows other missteps, like a sex scene intercut with an anti-police protest that turns tragic. Matsoukas chose to make a larger statement on race in America and that’s a fair wish, just as it’s understandable to feel some regret that, embedded in this potent but often meandering film, is a crackerjack 80-minute thriller.