Movies about outlaws are almost as old as the movies themselves. This kind of story is perfect for a popular medium, since an outlaw’s appeal is that they get away with it, bucking a system that works against any kind of rebellion. It was only a matter of time until appealing outlaws got the Black Lives Matter treatment. Directed by Melina Matsoukas and written by Lena Waithe, Queen & Slim is about two good-looking black people who become reluctant outlaws and folk heroes. Waithe takes the road movie structure and deepens it with plausible characters, a heartfelt romance, and bitter commentary on modern race relations.
When we first meet Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith), she is on a Tinder date with Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and it is not going well. She seems actively annoyed, and his attempt at charm has no effect on her. They get pulled over while he drives her home, and Matsoukas depicts the tension with a mix of suspense and resignation. Slim tries to talk his way out of being arrested, but then the cop escalates the situation and Slim has no choice but so kill him in self-defense. Realizing they just signed their death sentence, the pair embark on a long journey from Cleveland to Miami, in the vein hope that they can maybe fly to Cuba. Along the way, something strange starts to happen: dashcam footage of the traffic stop gets on the news, and everyone seems to recognize Queen and Slim. Black people in particular are happy to see them.
The core to the relationship is the budding romance between the two leads. If their first date ended normally, there likely would not have been a second. As Queen and Slim improvise as fugitives, there is the important subtext of getting to know one another. That gnawing sense of danger only escalates the sexual tension between them, so when they inevitably get to having sex, it is much more erotic and intense than the typical sex scene. The film is also an abashed appreciation of black bodies, including a sweaty dance sequence where Queen and Slim find their way into a small blues club. The camera lingers on these moments of levity, with the grim understanding that danger shortly awaits them.
Matsoukas is best known for her music videos – she directed the video for “Formation” by Beyoncé – and there are similar stylistic flourishes here. Maybe she even sees Terrence Malick as an influence, since Queen & Slim shares parts of its DNA with Badlands. There are dialogue scenes that abruptly cut into voice over, and the camera lingers on an image longer than we might expect. Some of these flourishes work better than others: there is awkward cross-cutting between the outlaws, and a tense protest they helped inspire. Sometimes it is unclear whether the disjointed dialogue is a character’s thought, or something they actually said. Still, these are minor issues, and mostly demonstrate that Matsoukas wants to develop a style all her own. In the important scenes, particularly the numerous stand-offs with the police, she crucially understands how to use camera placement and editing to escalate tension.
What makes Turner-Smith and Kaluuya so appealing is how they do not seem like typical fugitives. They begin the film as mild-mannered, functional adults, only to be thrust into a situation they can barely control. We learn a bit more about Queen: she is criminal defense attorney, so she understands the inequities of the justice system better than most. Mostly she is an intelligent, reserved woman who seems relieved that she can still surprise herself. This is Turner-Smith’s first major role, and she mixes vulnerability with steeliness in a way that suggests she may soon become a star. Kaluuya has already established himself with Get Out, so his performance suggests that role is no fluke. They carry this film, and make us care about this characters, so everything that befalls them comes with an added sting.
Once Queen and Slim decide to go on the run, there are only two outcomes available to them: they remain free, or they get caught/killed. What makes Queen & Slim so appealing is how that tension figures its way into the story, so there are fleeting moments of freedom, as well as a familiar sense of inevitability. They constantly negotiate how the feel, both in terms of each other and hope that they just might make it. The final minutes have an aching, heightened sense of melodrama to them. There is no other way to end this film, other than the way it ends here, simply because anything else would be dishonest, and would distract from the anger that informs Waithe’s script. That anger may linger, but Queen and Slim – both as characters and as a movie – will resonate long afterward.