It would be an understatement to say that Melina Matsouka’s directorial film debut was a success. In fact, it was breathtaking. With Matsoukas’s most notable productions being music videos for Beyoncé (including the politically charged Formation video), and with producer Lena Waithe at the helm of the story, it is no surprise that Queen & Slim is drenched in black culture.
Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya are Queen and Slim, a couple on an awkward first date, and while the two have chemistry, it is buried underneath their clashing personalities. While Slim drives Queen home, their playful banter is quickly cut short when the two are pulled over for supposed erratic driving, kicking off a scene that many people of colour are all too familiar with. The white police officer is immediately aggressive and views Slim with overt suspicion as he pats him down and searches the car without cause. The audience collectively holds their breath, praying the interaction will end with a warning or a ticket at worse, but all hopes are dashed when the officer pulls out his gun. Outraged, Queen insists on filming the altercation on her phone and the officer, assuming she is drawing a weapon, shoots her in the leg, letting chaos loose. The intense scuffle is quickly ended when Slim grabs the gun, shooting and killing the officer. What follows is an emotionally powerful road trip of survival.
Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are undoubtedly the stars of this film and their talent is undeniable. Kaluuya has been in the spotlight for the past few years, starting with his break out role in the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits” and with films like Get Out and Black Panther under his belt, it was clear that he could carry this role and bring out the nuance within his character. Turner-Smith, however, was a relative unknown, with a few minor credits and mostly known for her work in the TV series Last Ship and Nightflyers. Her lack of experience, however, did not hold her back. The two start the film as opposites, with Queen first presented in an all-white outfit, her hair falling in beautiful curls, sitting with perfect posture and complaining about their wrong order, while Slim sits with ease and is completely in his element, refusing to send back the food because he knows the waitress. It’s in moments like these where Kaluuya and Tuner-Smith work seamlessly together to present a realistic romance that begins cold and awkward, blossoming into a relationship based on trust and shared vulnerability; a rare sight for many modern romances presented on screen.
A few lines into the film, the relationship between Queen and Slim is completely encapsulated when she says “I want a guy to show me myself. I want him to love me so deeply, I’m not afraid to show him how ugly I can be. I want him to show me scars I never knew I had. But I don’t want him to make them go away,” with Slim responding “I just want someone that’s always going to love me. No matter what. Someone that’s going to hold my hand and never let it go.” And it’s within these few sentences that not only do they start to fall for each other, but the audience falls in love with them too.
While the romance was an important aspect within the film, it took second place to the tension that builds throughout the entire runtime. Moments in which our protagonists were nearly caught had me holding my breath and my heart thundering –I felt a fear that I had never experienced in any movie before, horror or not. The tension is occasionally lessened with each getaway and successful escape, punctuated with scenes in which Queen and Slim try to find small moments of happiness.
These scenes don’t just serve as a window into the character’s relationship but worked to subtly raise the audience’s anxiety as every moment of respite had a lurking dread that forces you to wonder when the next thing would go wrong, if this would be the end for our protagonists. Throughout the entire film, I found my body tense with the question, how will this end? Will they get a happy ending or will they end up like the hundreds of other black citizens who were unjustly imprisoned and killed? Despite the brief moments of levity, this question continued to linger and kept me emotionally invested until the bitter end.
Though it is classified as a romance crime drama, there were times in the film where the events taking place seemed more at home in the dystopian genre and it became clear that while parallel universes and alternate timelines offer white people a vision of a dystopian society, people of colour need only look at their reality to find the same story. Matsoukas uses this opportunity not just to tell the story of how individuals are impacted by police brutality and institutionalised racism, but how it affects the black community itself.
As the duo travel through the deep south, they encounter a variety of people of colour that assist them in various ways, though that’s not to say they are all represented the same. Matsoukas doesn’t let you fall into the trap of thinking that all black people are revolutionaries and that all white people are racist, exploring varying ideologies that you wouldn’t expect from certain demographics. Many of the people of colour that Queen and Slim interact with are supportive of their plight and protect them from law enforcement but there are also those who just wish to live their lives in peace and question their motives instead.
It would be remiss to not at least mention that the majority of the audience, myself included, were from a Caucasian ethnicity, and as such wouldn’t possibly be able to grasp the full weight and meaning of such a film. I was puzzled by the audience’s reaction to certain scenes, as many responded with laughter to scenes that were dramatic and held little, if any, humour or comedy. My only reasoning was that it was an attempt at diffusing tension, but still, it was disconcerting, once again highlighting the differences in our experiences.
Queen & Slim is a masterpiece that utilises the entirety of its cast and crew’s talent to deliver a poignant message wrapped in a tragic romance.
Queen & Slim is in cinemas March 12