Although Queen & Slim opens like an indie romantic comedy, there’s an undercurrent of uneasiness from the first moments of director Melina Matsoukas’ feature debut. The title characters (who are unnamed until the film’s epilogue) are on an awkward first date, clearly with different aims for the evening. The woman (Jodie Turner-Smith) is aloof and prickly, explaining that she’s a defense attorney and was just looking for some company after a terrible day in which one of her clients was sentenced to death. The man (Daniel Kaluuya) is more laid-back and open, hoping for a genuine connection with a stranger he met on Tinder. They engage in strained conversation, and then the movie cuts to them in the car, ready for this ill-advised meet-up to end.
That’s not how things are about to go, though. On the way home, the pair (both of whom are black) get pulled over by an aggressive white cop, who takes their failure to signal as an invitation to harass and intimidate them. When they question his tactics, he pulls his gun, firing at the woman and getting into a scuffle with the man, who eventually shoots the cop in self-defense. Their lives are changed in an instant, and as they stand in shock, they make a split-second decision to run rather than put themselves at the mercy of a racially biased, trigger-happy police force. Thus Queen and Slim are born, a pair of fugitives who eventually become folk heroes.
At one point, the pair is explicitly labeled “the black Bonnie and Clyde,” but Queen and Slim aren’t wanton criminals like Bonnie and Clyde. They only want to return to their normal lives, and they do everything they can to avoid further violence, to just get somewhere beyond the reach of the law so they can live in peace. Matsoukas, who’s known for her TV and music video work, gives the movie a poetic, dreamlike quality that’s sometimes at odds with the moments of stark social commentary in Lena Waithe’s screenplay. Matsoukas draws as much from Jean-Luc Godard and Terrence Malick as she does from urban crime dramas, and the movie’s best moments are its woozy, lyrical interludes between the main characters, whose heightened circumstances push them closer together.
The characters make a lot of decisions that don’t quite make sense, and the plot requires a lot of contrivances to keep them on the road even as a nationwide manhunt for them dominates the media. When the story tunes out those external factors and Matsoukas’ perspective remains in the car with Queen and Slim, the external logic isn’t important. These are people living on borrowed time, cast out by society, and all they know is how much they want to continue living and to continue being together. A sequence later in the film that cross-cuts between a passionate sex scene and a violent protest exemplifies everything that’s effective and muddled about the movie at the same time. Matsoukas is so good at making the personal political that it’s a bit disappointing to cut away to something more heavy-handed and direct.
Most of the movie sticks with Queen and Slim’s point of view, though, and Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are both very good, beautifully expressing the characters’ mix of righteous anger, romantic passion and existential dread. Matsoukas draws on her music connections for a lot of the supporting cast, including singer-songwriter Sturgill Simpson, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, poet Bertrand Boyd and singer Melanie Halfkenny, who bring off-kilter, unexpected energy to their scenes. The standout is Bokeem Woodbine as Queen’s Uncle Earl, a self-confident pimp whose hilarious bravado covers pain and tragedy.
Eventually, the movie paints itself into a corner, with no possible satisfying and/or convincing outcome for the increasingly desperate duo. The ending opts to send a clear message rather than remain in that ambiguous, impressionistic space, but given the real-life injustices going on every day that mirror Queen and Slim’s plight, it’s hard to fault the filmmakers for wanting to be forceful. Like the characters, the movie is full of disappointment and fury at the state of the world, and it expresses that point of view bluntly but with style.