Music video director Melina Matsoukas brings her considerable talents to the big screen with Queen & Slim, a crime drama fitted out like Bonnie and Clyde but driven by the engine of contemporary racial politics. The gorgeous framing that characterises her earlier work serves this debut beautifully, while understated turns from British actors Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith carry the film to its moving conclusion.
Opening in a late-night diner – all fluorescent-lit flat surfaces, sickly, washed-out hues and black windows – Slim (Kaluuya) and Queen (Turner-Smith) are awkwardly navigating a first date, brought about by defence lawyer Queen’s desire not be alone after one of her clients was executed that day. Queen’s rebuke to Slim’s question of whether the man was innocent is politically rather on the nose – not the last time the script drops a minor a clanger, either – yet it sows a seed of dread that quickly comes to fruition.
On the drive home, a cop stops Slim for a misdemeanour but the officer’s blatant racism means the situation quickly escalates and he shoots Queen. The ensuing scuffle between Slim – fighting for his life – and the cop ends in the police officer dead in the snow and Queen and Slim panicking and on the run. Where Slim is determined to turn himself in before things get even worse, the cool-headed Queen – knowing the system all too well – pushes him to flee. As the tension between the pair simmers, external, door-mounted shots capture their anger and terror as they drive into the night, dwarfed by the blackness of the Ohio highway.
Gas stations are shot like oases of light in the desert of night, illuminated by harsh light, threatening exposure. Meanwhile, Pete Beaudreau’s editing is subtly dreamlike, juxtaposing heard speech against characters who not speaking. While consequences fall against Queen and Slim like dominoes, their passage through America – from Ohio to Kentucky to New Orleans – becomes evermore surreal. As news of their predicament spreads, an impromptu underground railroad helps them on their way like modern outlaws. One character even refers to them as the “black Bonnie and Clyde”.
But this is no caper movie; just as Queen and Slim clothes itself in the trappings of the outlaw myth, the film’s real power is undoing its protagonists’ imagined heroism to show us their real and immediate victimhood. A short-lived (and somewhat underdeveloped) protest movement rises leading to more violence and black deaths on the news, while the media does its job of framing the victims of state violence as dangerous.
Queen & Slim is consciously political – powerfully so – but it is simple human survival that drives the two protagonists. It is humanity – brought to life by Kaluuya and Turner-Smith’s ineffable chemistry – made profane by the gross political discourses that underpins a civil order that legitimises murder and transforms its victims into perpetrators.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm