Whether or not you’ve even seen Queen & Slim, you can feel its conscious effort to be iconic. Its snappy title and sleek poster are immediately stamped on your brain. In fact, the main promotional image looks like a high-end clothing ad. (I mean, tiger print with snakeskin? I need it.) This is as much an artistic choice as it is an advertising tactic. In many ways, Queen & Slim’s emphasis on striking visuals is an extension of the film’s thematic exploration of the power of imagery in the Black Lives Matter movement. But in other ways, the movie just wants to look good. In tandem with Lena Waithe’s writing, this is how Melina Matsoukas’ music video background works as both a strength and weakness in her feature debut, with the prioritization of style and aesthetics either serving a timely and critical purpose or no purpose at all.
We open on an unnamed man (Daniel Kaluuya) and woman (Jodie Turner-Smith) sitting at a booth, glowing under the fluorescent lights of a sleepy Ohio diner. She eats her salad, he eats his eggs. He prods, she prickles. It’s their first date, and it seems like it will be their last. But when a white cop pulls them over on their way home and things escalate the way they so often do, the man manages to grab the officer’s gun and shoot him in self-defense, killing him. Knowing that the law will not be on their side, the reluctant couple flees the scene.
While on the run, Queen and Slim (as I’ll call them from now on, although those names are never mentioned) discover the dashcam footage of their run-in with the officer has gone viral and sparked countrywide protests to the tune of “Let Them Go.” This dashcam detail (perhaps a kind of callback to 1995’s Strange Days) is ingenious. Not only does it show how broken the system is—suggesting that even solid proof of Slim’s justifiable actions is useless against a racial profiling-dominated legal system a la Philando Castile—but it also builds on the film’s examination of how technology plays a role in contemporary racial political movements. After all, Queen & Slim establishes itself in the digital age from the get-go with the two characters meeting each other on a Tinder date, followed by some jokes in the car about only knowing a certain musical artist from a movie their work was featured in. Then, the cop pulls his gun because he sees Queen reaching towards her phone to record his behavior. And of course, the movie itself is a testament to digital media’s ability to ignite conversations about injustice and humanize its victims. Matsoukas and Waithe make it clear: images have power.
Queen and Slim start to realize the power of their own image as they make their way south, moving from one hideout to another in a sort of modern-day Bonnie and Clyde meets the Underground Railroad. The pair meet people who support them and others who don’t, blaming them for giving cops more reason to kill African Americans. Some even worship them as heroes. They become uncomfortable with becoming icons of revenge—”cop killers”—rather than victims of violent racism who merely fought for survival. This is even harder to process once they discover the cop killed a black person two years earlier. By also framing Queen as the Malcolm X to Slim’s Martin Luther King Jr., the film contemplates different approaches and reactions to racial injustice.
Other themes in the film are more heavy-handed. The movie plays with racist tropes comparing black people to animals quite literally, dropping blunt symbols into the costuming and dialogue. Sometimes this works as a defiant, in-your-face analogy to how black people are, as Waithe has said, “being hunted.” Other times, the symbolism feels forced. There is also a lot of talk of metaphorical scars and finding someone to be yourself with that was so treacly, I nearly cringed. This sort of clichéd dialogue took me out of the movie on several occasions and ultimately knocked a couple of stars off of my rating.
Clunky monologues about legacy also grow tiresome and tend to wander, but I believe they’re meant to highlight the danger and unpredictability of the black experience in a racist society. Think back to the beginning: the moment the couple is pulled over, you can tell from Queen’s face that she doesn’t know if they’ll be alive tomorrow. And if they die tomorrow, will the world remember them? A heightened awareness of their mortality makes legacy an urgent concern. This may be my favorite idea in the entire film, as it forces me to examine my own privilege as a white person in a new way. It also ties beautifully back to the theme of imagery. In a society that ignores you, neglects you, or even kills you, photos are a way to say, “I exist.” They are a way to inspire others even when you’re gone. According to Queen & Slim, images make you immortal.
As much as I appreciated some of these ideas, they often felt murky or didn’t hit the emotional beats they should have. At some moments, I could practically feel this screenplay being written, with confusing symbols jammed in here and there and arbitrary hurdles placed in front of the protagonists for the sake of plot. However, Queen and Slim’s southbound journey allows for some great supporting performances from Bokeem Woodbine, Inyda Moore, Chloë Sevigny, and Flea. Of course, the two leads are also completely enchanting and elevate the film immensely, but the real breakouts are Woodbine and Turner-Smith.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 stars
While Queen & Slim feels a bit like a 132 minute-long short film, its stellar cast, killer soundtrack, and refreshing treatment of complex subject matter make up for a few narrative flaws. The film sets itself apart by tackling the topic of systemic racism from the black perspective and with a cast of mostly black actors. We would all benefit from more movies like this one in Hollywood.