Review: At the outset, QUEEN & SLIM showcases the worst possible outcome of a Tinder date that ever will be. An awkward first date that turns into a run from the law, what it ultimately becomes is a complete 180: A poetic, ethereal symbol for what anyone searching for love is looking for, where even as the world as you know it is crumbling and reshaping around you, you can look into someone’s eyes and know they’ll ride with you through it all.
We don’t hear the real names of the title characters until the very end of the movie, leaving me only to describe them by the names in the movie’s title – Queen and Slim. We meet the two on an impromptu Tinder date, where it becomes evident Queen (Jodi Turner-Smith) – a confident, pragmatic, quick-tongued lawyer – and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) – who’s more emotional and self-assured – probably wouldn’t be going on a second one if not for the unexpected, violent events that are soon to follow. On their way home, the two are pulled over by a police officer who, without probable cause, pulls Slim out, begins to search him and his car, and then draws his weapon. Things go from bad to worse, and Slim struggles with the cop, kills him, sending the leads on the run – with Queen taking on more of a leadership role – accepting the reality that no matter what the officer’s dash-cam footage shows, they will likely be prosecuted and sent away.
It’s not long after that the crime is reported and images of the two are plastered all over the internet, and the two become public enemies, but also folk heroes to other Black people around the country. They’re soon dubbed “the Black Bonnie and Clyde” by one man, even though that’s simply because they’re a man and woman on the run together. While Bonnie and Clyde were killing and robbing unabashedly across the country almost a century ago, Queen and Slim have these tragic circumstances and mythos forced upon them, having to ditch their lives and stick together as a result. They don’t always make the smartest decisions, some of which to be expected of two people thrust into this circumstance (stealing a cop’s personal truck), and others that narratively don’t make sense (stopping soon after to chill while eating burgers). They quickly decide to flock to Cuba to outrun the law, and very easily make their way across the country, where they get help from all sorts of people who view their actions as justified or negative. First on their stop is New Orleans, where Queen’s uncle is played with show-stopping work from Bokeem Woodbine, flexing some of the humor in Lena Waithe’s script.
As they make their way down South the movie avoids the pacing and eventfulness of a sort of crime thriller the beginning could’ve easily set things up for. Instead, Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas opt for a romance drama, wherein the biggest beats come as the two slowly grow closer – despite the natural growing pains of characters with two conflicting personalities – and come face to face with how their actions have affected everything. Queen has built up many barriers for herself, but soon bricks start to fall as she opens up and shows herself as a person who is willing to let the right person in. Her character feels more fleshed out, with Turner-Smith giving her a strong voice and guarded emotionality. Kaluuya gets to show off his most vulnerable performance, breaking down Slim’s coolness with occasionally gripping pain. While Kaluuya once again turns in another fantastic performance, his Slim isn’t as well-drawn as Queen. She gets to open up more about her family life and past struggles, while him not so much. He’s by no means a one-dimensional character, but he’s just not as richly explored.
They have arguments and clashes over the course of their trip, and while sometimes the moments that show them coming together in romance seem a little forced, that romance is still profoundly affecting at times. Waithe – who has gotten to flex all sorts of muscles working on shows like MASTER OF NONE, THE CHI (which she created) and acting in Spielberg’s READY PLAYER ONE – writes their love with warming depth, giving both some poetic lines of dialogue that will cut to the core of you. Matsoukas, making her feature debut after directing episodes of shows like INSECURE and MASTER OF NONE and music videos for the likes of Beyonce and Rhianna, demonstrates remarkable passion behind the camera. She gives their journey a consistently intimate and soulful vibe, emphasizing the idea that as the Black community and America as a whole have a strong reaction to their actions, the only people the two seem to have left in the world to see them as people are each other. There are some moments that don’t work as well as they should, like an intimate moment that’s cut back and forth between a protest in a small town, but others, like a sensual night in a bar, are food for the soul.
This emphasis on the humanity of the story trumps what thriller elements there are, and even though the thrills aren’t exactly designed to be the main selling point, there are some genuinely nail-biting bits. The police hunting them down are never a central focus, but always show up just when it’s time to get the two of them on the road again. What gives these moments tension is the unspoken fact that even though the captured footage shows them defending themselves against a police officer who had shot an unarmed Black person before and gotten away with it, Queen and Slim are doomed to face the worst of consequences by a system painting them as murderous fugitives. The two of them know it, we know it, and there’s a sigh of relief as they get closer and closer to freedom.
But the tensions seem obligatory to keep things moving. What will leave the warmest, most substantial feeling inside are the smaller moments where the two look at each other as if there’s no one else that matters, and that if their old lives are to be forfeit, they have to take in the beauty of what newness is in front of them. This all builds to an emotional whopper of an ending, which no matter what you hope for or what you expect, will stay with you long after the credits roll and prove that no matter the flaws in character development or pacing, this romantic odyssey has an incredible, poetic soul. To everyone else, they’re folk heroes who stand for something so much more than themselves, but when they look at one another, all that matters is each other.