dir: Melina Matsoukas
Queen & Slim aims high. How do you encompass all of America’s issues with race, crime, justice, relationships in the Tinder age and parental difficulties in a two-hour film?
Well, you select two very attractive people and you make them the face of contemporary African-American Man and African-American Woman, then you put them through the ringer, and see if sexy results ensue.
Except…I dunno, I find it weird that neither of the leads is actually American. Both Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as the Queen and Slim of the title, grew up in Britain, with Ugandan parent’s in Daniel’s case and Jamaican in Jodie’s case. It kind of implies no-one else in America could have filled the roles, and I can think of at least four, maybe five people.
I guess it’s not really that relevant a point. Having grown up in Britain, on a council estate, there’s no doubt Daniel knows a lot about casual racism and the institutional variety, and Jodie has lived in LA for over a decade after doing uni in Pennsylvania, which is the most racist of the Northern states, as everyone knows (I’m just kidding even though I know it’s not funny in the slightest). Plus Daniel stared in Jordan Peel’s flick Get Out and in Black Panther as one of T’Challa’s friends from childhood, so I think he’s earned his place at the table.
Speaking of Black Panther, they couldn’t even resist making a Black Panther reference, though at least they didn’t say Wakanda Forever at any point. That would have broken the fragile tension keeping this contemporary story current and believable. There’s nothing funny about what they’re living through, though there is a bit of humour to leaven the dread.
A lot of the flick seems to be about the tensions surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, since the precipitating event involves a police officer. It expands out broadly to encompass issues to do with the justice system’s inherent biases against African-Americans, but also tries to capitalise on the status of the protagonists as proud counterculture symbols, which is a bit problematic. They become symbols to others, which obscures that they are people, with hopes and aspirations, as opposed to hollow Bonnie & Clyde surrogates, which is less than human.
It’s also about the growing relationship between the protagonists, who are unnamed for the majority of the flick. And because most scenes between them involve just the two of them, and that they’re mostly on what in any other context would be considered a road trip, they are getting to know each other as we’re getting to know them as well.
When they first meet, things don’t look very promising. They’re having a dinner date in a diner, both having swiped in the appropriate direction on Tinder, and their energy isn’t vibing. They’re from different parts of Ohio, they have different backgrounds, she is not impressed with his prayer before eating, he’s less impressed by her surly manner.
They’re not really connecting, but he, on the drive home, still hopes that they will at least have sex before never seeing each other again. She didn’t eat her meal, and he doesn’t really have any justification for thinking that she ‘owes’ him, but I guess he’s just trying it on because why not.
She shuts him down, and mocks him not only for thinking he was going to get some, but also for putting together a play list that he thought would increase his booty-getting chances.
Up to this point there’s nothing to indicate where the flick is going to go, but the second a cop gets involved, you know it’s all going to go downhill for everyone concerned.
The cop, at first, does everything according to the standard playbook. Slim is accommodating to a fault, and not disrespectful in any way. When he asks the cop whether things can hurry up, because he’s cold standing outside, it somehow sets the cop off like saying he was cold was some kind of trigger word that activates the cop and makes him go all Seventh Cavalry / KKK.
What happens next is unfortunate, but entirely of a piece with the experiences of so many African-Americans at traffic stops. The major difference in this instance is that instead of unarmed black people getting killed by cops who never face repercussions for their actions, Slim essentially saves his own life and that of Queen by killing the cop.
I don’t know why the dashboard cam video doesn’t exonerate them, other than them living in America, but when the video gets out, the rest of the community thinks they’re heroes on the run, but they are just trying to survive. Despite not even vaguely liking each other at this stage, they set off from Ohio to drive down to New Orleans, where Queen has an uncle.
Adventures ensue. Dangers transpire. On some levels it’s implausible that they would get as far as they do, but there is a certain hyper-reality that the story is represented with. It is a gorgeously shot movie, with visually lush scenes abounding, but I’m referring not just to how the movie looks, but the reality in which it unfolds. The duo travels down to Florida (after New Orleans) with the aid of an underground railroad of sorts, which maybe isn’t realistic in this day and age, but makes the link to the past for the persecuted who tried to survive the only way they could to get out of bondage through the kindness of non-racist strangers.
They don’t stay anywhere long enough to right wrongs or teach lessons, but they do have an impact on the people they run into, but it’s not clear that they’re impacted in turn. They’re surprised by their notoriety, but it’s a grim kind of pride that they take in watching their legend rise.
The trick the flick really pulls is that, at the beginning, just like to each other, we aren’t really onboard with the characters. They don’t start off that likeable. Queen is a defence attorney disillusioned with her work, and with losing another client to death row, and she is shutdown and disconnected from other people. Slim seems like an obedient goof whose every word and thought seems to be aimed at keeping his dad happy. A dad we see but briefly, but who is uppermost in Slim’s thoughts. I mean, good dad’s are wonderful and all, but a guy who talks non-stop about his dad on a first date is as worrying as a woman who talks about her mum non-stop at the same date. Parental issues…
Queen has him beat, even there. Clearly there is trauma in her family, and it’s over the course of the road trip that she will reveal all that happened and all the reasons why she orders her life the way that she does, and you can’t really blame her.
The New Orleans interlude is nuts. Flat out nuts. Queen’s uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) seems to be some kind of pimp, and the house he lives in has an array of working women, each more surreal than the last, but they don’t put up with his bullshit. One opines that out “there”, being, outside the four walls of the house, he ain’t shit, but inside the castle he has to be a king.
I… this section, as I said, is flat out nuts, and I can’t commend the performances or the go-for-broke nature of the acting that everyone puts in enough. The flick already felt like it was in some other kind of reality (though one just as brutal towards African-Americans as the world we live in), and yet in this sequence Queen and Slim look like the reasonable people, and everyone else looks and acts like they’re in a completely different film.
Of course our two cats on the run will fall in love, I guess, but the film takes its sweet time about it, because they have to actually like each other first. They transform at the uncle’s place, Queen losing her woven braids, and Slim shaving his head and face, changing their clothes into more standard Blaxploitation threads, even driving a customised pimpmobile, as if they didn’t stand out enough before. But as they change their appearance, and look more like they’re in a Vogue photoshoot, they also let down their internal barriers, and become more vulnerable with each other.
They even get to dance at some juke joint Bucket O’Blood type place, and it’s probably the sexiest thing I saw in a movie from the last year, even sexier than their actual sex scene, maybe.
And yeah, definitely not appropriate to watch it with yer kids, I learned to my absolute relief, when my daughter caught the early part of the film, and the ending of the film, but not the problematic middle bit, which probably would have resulted in things being thrown at the screen, thank the gods.
They get closer to each other, as people, as African-Americans in contemporary America, as they get closer to their goal, of somehow getting out of the States before they get shot or killed or incarcerated for the rest of their lives. But, yeah, how honest would the flick feel if they don’t experience the same lack of consideration that their brothers and sisters experience. That wasn’t phrased as a question.
The ending is heartbreaking, but it has to be. You can’t set something up as the “Black Bonnie & Clyde” or a hetero version of Thelma and Louise and have them drive off into the sunset. Their fate inspires, in the flick, legions of people to rise up against the unfairness of it all, hopefully enough to get them to fight for change, in their reality if not in ours. I don’t think this film is really going to change anything, I don’t think anyone involved is that delusional, but it’s of a piece with the contemporary world, capturing something, making it shine, and telling it through the travels and travails of two very accomplished actors who just happen to be extremely attractive.
If I have one complaint, and there is only one, really, it was the editing together of the sex scene with scenes from a protest with cops threatening to attack the protestors, which goes about as horribly wrong as you could imagine. The individual scenes are interesting or important enough as it is: I feel that splicing them together, essentially making the point about Sex and Death being so connected is way too on the nose, and also kind of implies their fucking is sort of responsible for the cop’s death, which is a weird kind of alchemy.
Maybe it was a bit too glossy, too stylised, too great like a certain film clip the same director made for one of Beyonce’s recent hits, but that hardly hampers the flick. And I love the iconic image of the pair, getting put up on walls in their honour, looking so great, in their honour and ours.
Queen & Slim is better than Bonnie & Clyde; it doesn’t have to pander to its legacy, and plus Queen and Slim aren’t criminals who kill for thrills unlike the other two jerks. They are innocent but found guilty, and their crime is being black.
And that’s not fair.
8 times no-one should look that good in a velvet tracksuit or animal print dress but they do out of 10
“I want a guy to show me myself. I want him to love me so deeply that I'm not afraid to show how ugly I can be. I want him to show me scars I never knew I had. But I don't want him to make them go away, I want him to hold my hand while I nurse them myself. And I want him to cherish the bruises they leave behind.” – Queen & Slim