For Black Americans, being pulled over by police risks more than just an expensive fine.
It becomes a matter of life and death.
The manner whereby police interaction can escalate into gunfire has been a dominant theme in the past decade of filmmaking, with the likes of Fruitvale Station, Blindspotting, and The Hate U Give offering unflinching depictions of police brutality and systemic racism.
Continuing this discussion into 2020 (or 2019 if you live in America) is screenwriter Lena Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas’ jugular gnawing, heart-rending, gut-punch of an outlaw love story, Queen & Slim.
On a cold Ohio night, Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) drive home following their unsuccessful Tinder date. Their undeniable chemistry, however electric, is contrasted by the two’s differing Type-A-Type-B personalities; the highly driven Queen’s penchant for no-nonsense being met by Slim’s relaxed demeanour. We are given but a few moments to relish in their coyness, with the carpet soon ripped from underneath the audiences feet upon the arrival of a racist police officer.
Doing what they can to survive the nightmarish situation, their momentary preparation to engage with the police officer feeling indoctrinated into them, things turn for the worst when an offhand remark made by Slim drives the officer into a mad fury. Slim’s initial begging for his life transcends into a fight for survival, with Slim’s act of self-defence, which results in the death of the police officer, flipping the script on the ‘police-killing-of-unarmed-Black-Americans’ narrative. Thankful to have survived, Queen and Slim are not oblivious to how their interactions will be interpreted by media and lawmakers; be-it their existence in a justice system that denies Black Americans equality before the law. Their necessary act to survive, regarded as an act of ‘cop-killing’ by the media, leads the two runaways out on the open road.
Queen and Slim’s journey develops throughout the film, becoming not only a story of escaping oppression, but a story of embracing identity, joie de vivre and the grace of freedom.
The team of Waithe and Matsoukas don’t so much as make you care about Queen and Slim as much as they do absorb you into their relationship. The pitch-perfect casting of Kaluuya and British newcomer Turner-Smith drives this home, with the talented youngsters portraying charming, well-rounded characters who deliver on the full spectrum of human emotion. This is where Queen and Slim finds its stride, choosing to empower the injustices felt by its titular characters by showcasing realised humans with human needs.
They may be on the run, but they remain liberated, if not, defiant.
That said, Matsoukas does not deny reality, with there being no depletion of nerve-racking horror to be felt during Queen & Slim. It is a harrowing depiction that becomes even more confronting considering the film’s influence stemming from the real-life struggles of Black Americans. The developing romance, allowing the audience to become invested in the central duo, becomes challenged by the onslaught of hardships thrown at their direction. From reuniting with estranged family members to the presence of a police officer on-screen, the police shoot-first-think-later mentality drawing all-consuming ire, Queen & Slim begs a nervous – albeit important – watch.
While undoubtedly recognising the impact mainstream media has on perpetuating problematic societal attitudes, Queen & Slim extends the narrative of racism through the gaze of Black America. It depicts the complexity of the matter with earnest gumption that denotes the susceptible manner systemic racism buries into not only the justice system, but culture. The impending conflict for many Black Americans being the unfair expectation to be exceptional, demonstrate blind allegiance, turn to figureheads, and to act with a suitability that conforms to white society. The hustle to survive, and the distressing extent of marginalisation on the landscape of America, further perpetuates these pressures felt by Black Americans, with Queen & Slim’s climax embodying the problematic scope of this with fervent rigour.
Thematically, Queen & Slim peels back the layers of Black identity like few films before it. Queen’s perspective as a lawyer, who refrains from allowing emotion to get in the way of the facts, views the world with a level of objectivity that breaks down throughout the film. Her eventual emancipation expressed through mind, performance and aesthetic, casts a shining light on Turner-Smith.
Matsoukas carries this sense of aesthetic through to Queen & Slim’s production design, with the ‘Formation’ director showcasing a stunning array of striking visuals that speak a testament to her ability as a first-class director. The dimension this provides on Queen and Slim allows for slow-burning, top-notch visuals to communicate the depths of the two runaways budding romance.
Self-aware of the parallels the film will draw to Bonnie and Clyde, even indulgently describing itself as the ‘Black Bonnie and Clyde’, there is a profound and euphoric centre to Queen & Slim, one that is powered by a romance for the cinematic ages, that probes into the heartland of racial inequality in Trump-era America.
Director: Melina Matsoukas
Cast: Jodie Turner-Smith, Daniel Kaluuya, Bokeem Woodbine
Writer: Lena Waithe, (based on a story by James Frey and Lena Waithe)