Queen & Slim (2019)
Written by Lena Waithe
Directed by Melina Matsoukas
Queen & Slim is presented as a story of legendary figures who don’t realize that they will become icons. They are unassuming people, but the filmmaking informs us through its cinematography and a musical score that this is important. The first moments of the movie undercut these elements, two people sitting across from each other in the middle of an awkward Tinder date. It’s clear the situation is not going well, and they likely won’t see each other again after this. We learn a lot about Slim (he prays before he eats, he chose a little corner diner for their date) and Queen (she’s a lawyer whose client was just executed, she rolls her eyes at Slim’s prayer). The aftermath of the date becomes the inception of the entire film, a traffic stop by a police officer with ill intent on his mind.
The officer is overly forceful when he sees he’s dealing with a black couple, and Queen’s background as a lawyer imbues her with a sense of justice, stepping in for Slim. This is established in the dating scene when Slim doesn’t get his eggs brought to him the way he ordered. Queen insists that he send them back and make the restaurant get it right, Slim is happy to just take what he was given. These traits emerge in a volatile way during the police stop, and it ends with Queen’s leg grazed by a bullet and a dead officer on the snowy ground. This moment is when our protagonists’ lives end, and their new existence begins.
You’re going to be reminded of pictures like Bonnie & Clyde or Badlands, and those are definitely in the DNA of this film. However, the characters in this movie are not criminals out to sow chaos, but victims of a system that will never listen to them; will always value the voices of white people over theirs. They become outlaws because the minute they stepped outside the boundaries of what society allows them, they have to be crushed by the authority. While making a few stops along the way with sympathetic allies, Queen & Slim’s relationship evolves, and they find the strength within each other.
The highlight for me in this movie is the stunning cinematography by Tat Radcliffe, who is the chief architect behind the epic feeling of the picture. He chooses the most interesting angles for one on one conversations, and he uses the landscape of the rural Southeast United States to his advantage. Director Melina Matsoukas is at her best when she is allowing the tension to build in moments. The traffic stop scene is a white knuckle moment when you see the three elements converge into what will inevitably devolve into chaos. Not long after, the duo accepts a ride from a good samaritan, and we feel that tightness of the chest return. Sadly that atmosphere gets defused for most of the second act, which does need to spend time on character development, but still could have used more of those moments from the first act.
Queen & Slim is not a perfect movie. Daniel Kaluuya does a great job as Slim, finding that center where he is both a meek, passive person but also shows that roiling spirit coming through. Jodie Turner-Smith, who plays Queen, has fantastic moments, but when she’s not hitting on all cylinders, it is very clear on-screen. The film is like an adaptation of a legend, a piece of folklore, giving humanity to archetypes and telling us an important parable.