‘Queen & Slim’ Live the American Nightmare
“What is cinema? A girl and a gun,” said Jean-Luc Godard, famously quoting film pioneer D.W. Griffith. Throw race into the mix and you have Queen & Slim, a lovers-on-the-run odyssey through the Deep South that uses Griffith’s century-old truism to take a galvanizing, up-to-the-minute snapshot of a post-Obama nation. It’s a dark fairy tale about an American nightmare.
QUEEN & SLIM ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Melina Matsoukas
Written by: Lena Waithe
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Chloë Sevigny, Flea
Running time: 132 min
Black Lives Matter meets Bonnie and Clyde is one way to pitch it. But the far more socio-politically ambitious Queen & Slim aims to capture questions of ethnicity and identity in ways that are both majestically sorrowful and rousingly indignant. The film has an out-of-phase pull, rooting itself in concrete-scraping reality and then jerking away into a visual lyricism that recall director Melina Matsoukas’ background in impressionistic music videos. She doesn’t always reconcile that dissonance, but the cumulative power of her achievement is still a cinematic thunderclap.
Queen is Angela Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith), a hardened Ohio defense attorney whose client just got sentenced to death. Slim is Ernest Hines (Daniel Kaluuya), a gentle, God-fearing Christian who works a checkout register at the local Costco and does his best to lead a decent life. The movie opens on their first date, a Tinder rendezvous at a no-nonsense Cleveland diner that definitely does not impress Angela. Ernest chose it, though, because it’s black-owned. He’s sweet, she’s sour. The drive home, though playful, is guarded. And then a police siren shocks their senses.
An itchy-trigger officer pulls them over, tensions rise, and suddenly their evening ends in unintended bloodshed. Self-defense? You bet. Angela has a gunshot flesh wound to prove it. But in the eyes of the law, they’re cop killers. “I’m not a criminal,” says Ernest, stunned. “You are now,” she replies.
Angela does the hard calculus that turning themselves in would only mean doom. “You want to be the state’s property?” she asks incredulously. And so they go on the lam, first to New Orleans to visit her flashy, shadowy uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) and then eventually down to Florida where a guy knows a guy with a Cessna to Cuba.
Their journey turns them into outlaws, and the authorities declare a $250,000 bounty on each of their heads. A cop-cam video of the inciting incident goes viral. Old and young alike in the black community help, protect, and cheer on the couple with power-to-the-people exhilaration. “You gave us something to believe in,” says one of them. “We needed that.” That said, not all white people are bad and not all black people are good. Even minor characters have nuance. And, through it all, fearing for their lives, the duo start to fall in love.
Yes, Queen & Slim makes its anti-heroes look the part. Better to hide in plain sight, they decide, as Angela slides into a tiger-print minidress, Ernest puts on a cranberry velour tracksuit, and the fugitives climb into a turquoise Pontiac Catalina. Talk about dressed to kill.
Yet the mood never shifts out of a simmering despair. Any glimmers of triumph come from their ability to open up to each other. “Why do black people feel the need to be excellent?” says Ernest. “I just want to be myself.”
Angela’s reticence conceals even more painful vulnerability. “I want a guy to show me myself,” she says. “I want him to love me so deeply I’m not afraid to show him how ugly I can be.”
What an amazing declaration. How is this a Hollywood movie? And why can’t Hollywood make more? Queen & Slim is a daring film by any measure, especially as a major studio production written, directed, and starring women of color. It’s outsider art made from within the establishment system. And that’s a remarkable achievement regardless of the film’s artistic qualities or future cultural impact. Its existence is proof that the world can change for the better. How even more heartbreaking, then, that the story itself is so tragic. “I want proof we were there,” says Ernest when someone asks to take their photo. That kind of proof is long overdue.