Many films depend on a what-if scenario, and the one behind Queen & Slim is a good one. We’ve heard so many stories about white cops killing unarmed black men, so what would happen if an unarmed black man killed the white cop instead? That question isn’t really answered here, but this bracing road thriller delivers more than a few sharp insights as it goes.
The story begins as a man and a woman (Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith) go on a cheap Tinder date at a diner in Cleveland. What turns it into a really bad date is a white officer (Sturgill Simpson) who pulls them over on their drive home and proceeds to be a massive dick, pointing his gun in the man’s face. He shoots the woman when she tries to film the encounter, and in the ensuing struggle, the man kills the policeman with his own gun. With no reason to believe in the mercy of the justice system, the two make a run for it, driving to her uncle’s house in New Orleans. The dead officer’s dashcam footage hits the internet, and by the time the protagonists reach the Big Easy, her uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) greets them with, “If it isn’t the black Bonnie and Clyde!”
More like Thelma and Louise, really. Even though our reluctant antiheroes actually have a somewhat viable escape plan, the signs are everywhere that this won’t end with them sipping mai tais on some foreign beach. Indeed, as inexperienced criminals, they make a ton of bad decisions. Screenwriter Lena Waithe (who also co-starred in Ready Player One) and first-time feature director Melina Matsoukas (a black director of Greek, Jewish, and Caribbean descent who previously helmed Beyoncé’s “Formation” video) seldom leaves the side of Queen and Slim — who, oddly, are never explicitly referred to by their names from the film’s title — but we gather that a nationwide protest movement springs up around their flight from the law. It would have been good to see more of how that plays out on the street and online.
Matsoukas displays tantalizing flashes of talent here, especially in the film’s smaller moments when the narrative slows down. Queen and Slim take a break from driving by finding their way into a blues club in Alabama, and you can feel their short-lived relief at being able to melt into the crowd and dance. What makes these two keep moving is their knowledge that they’re on borrowed time and their determination to snatch every little pleasure that life offers them, whether it’s soothing music, hanging out the window of a moving car, or sex of the “we may be dead tomorrow” variety.
Woodbine gives a funny performance as an actual pimp who experiences the novel sensation of looking out for someone other than his prostitutes. Kaluuya does his sad and soulful act to good effect, but the real star turn comes from his fellow British actor Turner-Smith, a cool and statuesque presence (she’s taller than him) who suggests the scars of family dysfunction lurking underneath her regal hauteur. If Queen & Slim doesn’t always succeed as an act of provocation, it does work as a showcase for some new talent I’d like to see develop.
Starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith. Directed by Melina Matsoukas. Written by Lena Waithe. Rated R.