Now hitting HBO Max (and Ye Olde HBO in the cable box), Queen and Slim is a movie for our times that’s only gotten more timely since its original, late 2019 theatrical release. Outside its social, cultural and political themes — we’ll get to that, don’t worry — the film is an audacious assemblage of newish, burgeoning Black talent, including: Stars Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Jodie Turner-Smith. Melina Matsoukas, director of iconic music videos by Beyonce and Rihanna, jumps from TV (Insecure, Master of None) to her first feature-length effort. And scripter Lena Waithe, a writer, producer and actress whose myriad credits include Dear White People (the movie and TV series), Master of None and Ready Player One. Maybe it’s no surprise to learn that Queen and Slim finds this creative group fulfilling much of its potential.
The Gist: It begins with a mediocre-bordering-on-crummy Tinder date: Queen (Turner-Smith) is a bluntspoken atheist and attorney whose client was executed earlier that day. Slim (Kaluuya) is a laid-back believer. Date No. 2 ain’t gonna happen. He’s driving her home when he swerves a little and gets pulled over by a white cop with a nasty attitude. Slim walks on eggshells, but Queen stomps on them. The tiniest of perceived slights prompts the cop to draw his gun, and our pulses accelerate. Agitated, the cop fires, grazing Queen’s leg. A scuffle ensues. He drops his gun. Slim grabs it. And before we know it, the opposite of so many heartbreaking news stories has occurred: The cop is dead by Slim’s hand.
It’s worth noting that Queen and Slim is set in modern times, so the decision of the two Black characters holds a fair amount of logical water: They run. More accurately, Queen convinces Slim to run, and the implication is, she knows the law, and how it works, and also how it doesn’t work, for people with dark skin. They grab the cop’s pistol, toss their smartphones out the window and head from the chill of Cleveland to New Orleans, where her uncle may be able to help them hide, or keep running, or something they haven’t considered yet, but their options sure seem slim, and keep getting slimmer.
Circumstances in Kentucky put them behind the wheel of a stolen truck with no money, but the gun at least buys them a tank of gas. In the meantime, police dashcam footage has made them a national story, and their photos are all over the media. They chase their reputation to Uncle Earl’s (Bokeem Woodbine) house in New Orleans; he’s an Iraq War veteran and pimp surrounded by a small harem of women who worship and quarrel with him. Earl and Queen have a complicated history obligating him to give them a bed for a night or two, and an envelope full of cash, and a vintage turquoise Pontiac Catalina with crazy custom rims. He’s perhaps the most colorful of the many characters Queen and Slim meet on their getaway road trip that may be transforming into a honeymoon — and then, perhaps obviously, something much more than that.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Bonnie and Clyde is the obvious reference point. But shades of Sugarland Express, Vanishing Point and Thelma and Louise confirm Matsoukas’ intent to render the film as reflective of multiple decades of progress in the on-the-run road-trip genre — and maybe illustrate the lack of social progress at the same time.
Performance Worth Watching: Strong as the two leads are — especially Kaluuya and his undeniable magnetism — Woodbine is subtly dynamic in a supporting role, and a softspoken and ethereal Indya Moore, playing one of Earl’s employees/confidants/lovers, is the catalyst of a couple extraordinary scenes.
Memorable Dialogue: In the car, driving from New Orleans to Georgi:
Slim: “Skinny Luther or fat Luther?”
Queen: “Mmm… skinny Luther.”
Slim: “See, I don’t trust people that like skinny Luther.”
Sex and Skin: Maybe it’s inevitable that Queen and Slim would consummate their unlikely pairing in a scorching-hot scene of artsy softcoresploitation — a sequence that’s cross-cut with a deeply upsetting occurrence, lest we burst into flame.
Our Take: With Queen and Slim, Waithe (who also gets story credit alongside James Frey) and Matsoukas aim to tangle the stuff of modern myth with moments of indisputable realism. Scenes of police aggression — during the traffic stop and a protest-turned riot — are hard to watch in a ripped-from-the-headlines sense, especially here in mid-2020, where similar scenes occur almost daily. Empathetic hearts break so much harder now.
But those moments, crucial as they are, don’t define the movie. The filmmakers merge those moments of grueling tension with a poetic, almost ebullient sense of personal liberty. If there’s anything to nitpick here, it’s that the mixture of such elements isn’t always smooth; we can explain away some of the puzzling decisions Queen and Slim make as justified Trump-era paranoia. They feel profound sensations of joy, love and freedom while they’re on the run — hopping a fence to steal a quick horseback ride, hanging out the window in the ocean air as they cruise past the Gulf — quietly asserting the great irony that troubling circumstances inspire the electricity and immediacy of being truly alive. When on the run from a constant threat of death, stopping to smell the roses is absolutely essential.
Stylistically, Matsoukas invokes key elements of post-Bonnie and Clyde cinema with hearty romanticism. The film’s small dramas and supporting characters are dramatically heightened for our entertainment, and to conjure the spirit of folklore. The ending wrestles with ideas of martyrdom and the power of legend — and in the wake of George Floyd’s death beneath the knee of a Minneapolis cop, unwitting prophecy.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Queen and Slim is a daring reflection of the 21st century state of race and culture in America. It’s by no means a perfect film, but Matsoukas and Waithe’s bold mythmaking renders it the state of the art nonetheless.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.