“I’m an excellent lawyer,” Queen says to Slim, at a time in their brief acquaintance when legal skills seem both urgently needed and wholly irrelevant.
Slim is not impressed. “Why do black people always have to be excellent?” he asks. “Why can’t we just be normal?”
The question has a special poignancy at the moment he asks it. Before everything went haywire, he and Queen — whose given names we learn only at the very end of the movie, via a news broadcast — were in the middle of a perfectly, depressingly normal evening.
‘Queen & Slim’, the debut feature by music-video and television virtuoso Melina Matsoukas (written by Lena Waithe), starts out as a restrained comedy of romantic disappointment. The title pair — played by British actors Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya — are in a diner after connecting on a dating app, and the lack of chemistry is palpable. She seems impatient and distracted. He seems sincere and friendly, but maybe also a little basic. They get into his car, a nondescript white sedan. It’s a cold night in Cleveland, and a second date is unlikely.
But the divine powers and the filmmakers have other plans. A lethal encounter with an aggressive white police officer (country singer Sturgill Simpson) changes everything. The non-couple turn into fugitives, and ‘Queen & Slim’ becomes an outlaw romance. Hailed in the film as “the black Bonnie and Clyde,” Queen and Slim evoke other storied movie duos too, like Butch and Sundance and Thelma and Louise. In the course of their flight — from Ohio to New Orleans and across the South toward Florida — they become folk heroes. They also fall in love.
“I’m not a criminal,” Slim protests, early in the journey. It’s the flip side of his earlier complaint about excellence. The world wants him to be either a paragon or a pariah, denying his individuality, his specific dreams and desires. That’s the beautiful, terrible paradox of this movie: only as its heroes are driven to extremes of desperation, courage and resilience do they experience passions and pleasures that might have been part of ordinary life.
‘Queen & Slim’ is full of violence and danger, but it isn’t a hectic, plot-driven caper. Its mood is dreamy, sometimes almost languorous, at least as invested in the aesthetics of life on the run as it is in the politics of black lives. Not that the two are separable. The image of Queen and Slim that is reproduced on protest T-shirts and murals shows them striking stylised poses in borrowed clothes, leaning against the vintage Pontiac that carries them on the second half of their journey.
The car belongs to Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), who lives in New Orleans in a polyamorous arrangement that might also be a moneymaking operation. An Iraq War veteran with a complicated past, he is one of a handful of vivid characters we meet along the way. Dashcam images of what happened in Ohio have gone viral, stripping Queen and Slim of anonymity and turning every encounter into a tense guessing game. Will this person help us out? Turn us in? Rip us off?
The answers are sometimes comical — Slim’s attempt to rob a gas station, for example — sometimes terrifying, and sometimes both at once, and they don’t emerge in simple black and white. Racism in America can be stark and brutal, but it isn’t always simple. People who look like allies turn out to be enemies, and vice versa. Ironies and contradictions abound, even as some of the basic facts assert themselves with blunt, oppressive force.
Queen and Slim’s goal is to find a pilot who will fly them to Cuba, a destination that links them to the history of black radicalism. Their drive along the back roads of Alabama and Georgia is propelled by a soundtrack that is equally history-minded, with deep hip-hop and R‘n’B selections strung along Devonte Hynes’ mood-altering score. The music mirrors the film’s album-like structure. Even as the plot moves forward in a straight line, its episodes have their own shape and integrity.
Not every cut is a classic. A burst of violence, indirectly connected to Queen and Slim, feels jarring and overwrought, especially because of the way it’s intercut with a sex scene — a mash-up that produces more cacophony than intensity. A bit of back story involving Queen and Uncle Earl is similarly ill-considered. The film fumbles some of its big gestures and over-italicises a few statements. What lingers, though, are strains of anger, ardour, sorrow and sweetness, and the quiet astonishment of witnessing the birth of a legend. This movie feels like something new, and also as if it’s been around forever, waiting for its moment.
Don’t miss it!
‘Queen & Slim’ releases in the UAE on January 30.