Queen & Slim will go down in history as one of the most criminally overlooked films of 2019. So many movies directed by women fall under that category, as they so often do, but last year’s awards did the culture a real disservice by sweeping Melina Matsoukas’s feature-length directorial debut almost completely under the rug.
On the surface, it’s a simple story. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) are going home from their first date when a white cop pulls them over for a traffic infraction. Slim tries to do everything right, but as soon as he says something the cop doesn’t like, the situation escalates. The cop shoots Queen, and in the ensuing chaos, Slim shoots and kills the cop. They go on the run, despite knowing what the end of their story will be.
The power of Queen & Slim is in its ability to put you right in its protagonists’ shoes, so that you’re on their journey with them. For a while, they forget the inevitable tragedy that waits for them at the end and let themselves connect with each other on the deepest levels, in spite of the horrific and unjust situation in which they find themselves. It’s a journey that neither of them would’ve chosen, but within it they find moments of true joy and clarity that they never would’ve found without each other. Queen and Slim found love too late, and just like everything else, it’s stolen from them. But at least they found it at all.
Although it has its moments of urgency, Queen & Slim is not an urgent film, preferring to take its time in exploring the humanity of its fugitive duo rather than focusing on the circumstances that made them criminals in the first place — and even then, the word “criminal” doesn’t quite fit. The only crimes they commit are done out of either necessity or self-defense, and neither Queen nor Slim relishes in their new lifestyle. They’re just doing what they can to survive in a world that is predisposed to shoot on sight.
Within the film, Queen and Slim are dubbed “the Black Bonnie & Clyde” as footage of the shooting goes viral, but each time someone helps them continue running because of the Black Lives Matter-type movement they’ve inspired, they react not with pride but resignation. Bonnie and Clyde wanted their notoriety; Queen and Slim just want to live.
Altogether, Queen & Slim is a quietly astounding film made all the more powerful by the talent behind it. Tat Radcliffe’s sumptuous cinematography amplifies Matsoukas’s naturalistic direction. And by “naturalistic,” I mean she’s one of those directors who’s so talented that she makes it look easy, when in reality it’s anything but. Good direction is noticeable, but great directing is rarely ostentatious. I’m fairly confident in calling Matsoukas a great director who has a long and fascinating career ahead of her.
Similarly, Lena Waithe’s script (and story co-written by James Frey) could easily be dismissed as too simple to be interesting, when the truth is that the best stories are simple ones, made interesting by the skill with which they are told. Waithe has the ability to make a heavy scene feel weightless, infusing it with dialogue that will come back to haunt you long after the movie is over.
And then there’s Queen and Slim themselves. Turner-Smith and Kaluuya’s performances complete and define the film to the point where it’s impossible to imagine it without them. Turner-Smith certainly earns her “introducing” credit while Kaluuya once again distinguishes himself as one of the best, most versatile actors to come out of the British TV show Skins, which I only mention because I loved it in high school and have followed all of its alums (including Dev Patel, Nicholas Hoult, Jack O’Connell and Kaya Scodelario) as their careers grew bigger and brighter over the years. In any case, acting awards tend to fall over themselves for showy performances; one can only wish for an alternate universe where either of the leads of Queen & Slim won some kind of recognition for their nuanced turns here.
I regret that I was unable to attend the critics’ screening of Queen & Slim last year. I regret even more that I didn’t try to make time for it and pay to see it while it was in theaters. It’s a shame that it fell under the radar, but if you missed it like I did, seek it out on 4K Blu-ray, DVD or digital today. You know how it ends: The tragedy is unavoidable, but the journey is beautiful and so very, very worth it.