Our unnamed leads are “Queen” (Jodie Turner-Smith), a criminal defence lawyer, on an awkward Tinder date with “Slim” (Daniel Kaluuya). The date is not a huge success – possibly because the determined and ambitious Queen has little in common with the gentle, Godly and quiet Slim – but their lives are changed forever when Slim gives her a lift home. Pulled over by an increasingly aggressive police officer, innocent questions from Slim, and Queen’s challenge of his authority, lead to his gun being drawn, Queen shot in the leg and a scuffle with Slim that leaves the officer shot dead. Now wanted for killing a police officer – and convinced that their side of the story will never get an equal hearing – they go on the run. But their cause seizes the public imagination, and “the Black Bonnie and Clyde” end up inspiring others to take a stand across an unjust system.
Queen and Slim uses common conventions of a road movie: two young people on the run for a crime who discover new things about themselves and the world as they travel, drawing closer together. In that sense there is nothing too revelatory about it. Indeed half of the film’s impact – rather like Thelma and Louise – is taking expected tropes and presenting them to us from new perspectives. But what Matsoukas’ film does so effectively is to add a completely new political and social dimension to this. This road movie instead becomes a searing commentary on race in America and the injustice of the system.
Endemic unfairness runs through the entire movie. From the pulling over of the young couple at the start of the film – a search that becomes increasingly invasive and aggressive for no other reason than the officer’s reaction to their colour – to their final confrontation with a lethally trigger-happy police force, there is no fair crack of the whip for this couple. Queen’s restatement of her and Slim’s rights when pulled over is seen as a violent action. The media swiftly turn the couple into ruthless, dangerous killers. A parade of law enforcement (certainly all of the white officers) sink quickly to using crude, racially tinged stereotypes. And there is of course no question that an unjust, one-sided trial ending in (at best) a life-long prison sentence awaits this couple if caught.
But the film also shows brilliantly another side of America. On the road trip, Matsoukas’ camera captures the distant, sometimes run-down, ghettoised communities of non-White groups in America (to the extent that a traditional picket-fenced house visited late on by the couple seems like a foreign land). The camera pans through parts of America we rarely see – and also sees the communities there. These are people who know, in their hearts, that Queen and Slim are the victims here – that the police are more than capable of shooting black people who look like they might cause trouble, whether they have or not. But they also know that there is no chance of justice for them, that they are destined to become martyrs. And that like them, every Black person in America could be a breath away from falling victim to police brutality.
This gives the film a real edge, that gains extra force the more events from the news remind us that issues like this are far from fiction. It gives a political force to the film that serves as a superb snapshot of America today. Matsoukas’ film is shot with vibrant freshness and she draws a great couple of performances from the leads.
Both are contrasting souls, who find themselves drawn closer together as they slowly absorb each other’s qualities. Jodie Turner-Smith is superb as the lawyer with a chip-on-her-shoulder, whose unhappy family life has led to her putting up emotional safeguards that only slowly erode over the course of the film. In many ways the road journey gives her a freedom she has never had before – while Slim’s gentleness encourages her to express sides of herself she has kept long-hidden. Daniel Kaluuya is similarly wonderful as the devout and gentle Slim, who discovers in himself an anger and resentment at the injustice he had accepted as part of everyday life.
Queen and Slim marshals this altogether into a compelling package that will open many people’s eyes to the truth of racial politics in many parts of America – and the tensions underneath it.