Queen & Slim, the debut film from Melina Matsoukas, provides a powerful perspective on racism in America as we see how quickly a seemingly innocent incident can turn into a matter of life or death. Following the murder of George Floyd, America has seen a radical resurgence in the desperation among its citizens for reform on police brutality and gun culture. Queen & Slim, released before Floyd’s murder, while not based on a specific true story provides a realistic account of how a routine stop and search can quickly escalate.
Throughout the film, our protagonists are nameless black Americans, however, by the end of the film we know them as Queen and Slim, a moniker given to them by those who supported them. Their story begins on a date in an un-glamorous Ohio diner. The date isn’t going particularly well as Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith), who chooses to live her life in solitude as a defense lawyer is somewhat frosty towards the affable and friendly Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) a devout Christian, family man who matched with Queen on tinder. On their drive home from the date, Slim accidentally swerves the car while trying to get his phone back from Queen who playfully took it from him to look at his music. In doing so, a nearby cop pulls him over for a very minor traffic infraction. The scene that follows is impossible to look away from as you watch the interaction between the couple and the cop and you see how quickly it can turn hostile. This scene is intentionally tense to mirror the feelings of black Americans when they get pulled over by a cop for doing nothing wrong, the feeling that the second those blue lights are on they know they are in serious trouble. The fight or flight, the rush of adrenaline, the fear. Slim plays things pretty coolly while Queen, knowing their rights as citizens challenges the officers behaviour. As things continue to get aggravated, the officer chooses to arrest Slim, despite not having a reason and Queen becomes confrontational and in doing so, the officer shoots her in the leg. Slim, who fears the worst for them now grapples with the officer and shoots him in self-defense and kills him. Knowing that they stand no chance of survival now that they have killed a cop, they know the only think they can do is to run. Despite it being self defense and the cop shooting first, arresting Slim for no reason and aggravating the arrest they know that due to the fact they are black, they will be ostracized and labelled as cop killers without anyone bothering to consider otherwise.
Throughout their time on the run, they travel from state to state going to people they know will be able to help them. They undergo a physical transformation as Queen sheds her hip length braids and white turtle neck jumper and swaps them for her natural hair and a tiger-striped mini dress with snakeskin boots. Slim shaves his head and changes into a red tracksuit and with the authorities hot on their tails and the media circus brandishing them as armed and dangerous cop killers, they fear that their fate is out of their hands. Until they start to notice that everywhere they go, black people are recognizing them and supporting them as they learn the cop they killed, had killed a black man two years before during another routine stop and search. There is an uprising and the anger of black American’s bubbles over as they demand Queen and Slim be free.
While the film pays particular attention to the suffrage of modern day black Americans and the injustice of the treatment of Queen and Slim, it is also a love story. The young couple knows that they probably won’t make it Cuba as they planned and that they will get caught and killed so they start to do things they would never normally do, they start living like they’ve got nothing to live for. The film’s most beautiful moments come from the burgeoning relationship between Queen and Slim, that had they not been in this situation together, the love that grows between them would never have happened. It is celebrating something so beautiful and pure coming from tragedy. The direction from Matsoukas in these moments, in particular, is exquisite and the natural chemistry and energy between Kaluuya and Turner-Smith is palpable.
It’s a story that spans a very short time period but one that covers so much and sends characters on life changing transformations. Stunningly written by Lena Waithe, the conversations about love and life that Queen and Slim have with each other are deeply poetic and provide a touching voiceover to some poignant moments in the film. While its difficult to watch the film and imagine an ending different to what our protagonists are aiming for, it feels inevitable that it will not go that way. When asked about the ending of the film, writer Lena Waithe said she “didn’t want to go easy on the audience” and didn’t want to give them a “fairytale” ending because that is not what is true of people like Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Sandra Bland have had. In an interview at an event at TIFF, Matsoukas said that “Black people don’t get a choice to decide if we’re going to run to the plane or drive over the edge like Thelma and Louise…we’re going to go out in a hail of bullets.” Queen and Slim is an absolute must watch for everyone, especially at a time when the matters portrayed are so prevalent in current culture and fictionalizes something real to many people who have lost their lives or lost someone they love unjustly.
Queen & Slim premieres on HBO on Saturday 22nd August at 8pm.
As an HBO Watch writer since 2013, I have covered a wide variety of shows from Eastbound and Down to Game of Thrones. I am also a huge Stanley Kubrick enthusiast having written my undergraduate thesis on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Outside of the world of film and TV I am an avid baker and teach 16-18 year olds how to use cameras.