I reviewed “Black and Blue” recently, which is about killer cops. “Queen & Slim” is about cop killers; it’s a runnin’-from-the-law instant classic, which is being labeled by some as “The black ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’” Which is nonsense. But before I get into that, let me say, it’s the rare film I’ll give a 5-star rating to. Five stars means I want to see it again.
“Queen & Slim” actually has much more in common with 1991’s “Thelma & Louise.” White Louise shoots her friend Thelma’s would-be rapist, and black Slim shoots the white cop who was about to kill his date; the commonality being that both homicides were cases of self-defense.
While Bonnie and Clyde were a couple of low-life criminals long since glorified in the minds of the American public, having been played by drop-dead gorgeous actors and spun as homegrown, do-gooder Robin Hoods. Which is basically the subversive agenda of communism’s infiltration of Hollywood. What?? More on that later. Actually no, not enough space for all that. But one of these days …
Black writer, director, cast (for the most part)—black everything. And yet “Queen & Slim” is about as universal a film as you’ll ever see. White folks, regardless of the fact that here’s yet another racist white cop at the heart of this film, will appreciate this movie for its deeply human story, its riveting storytelling, and its haunting soundtrack.
And much like “Thelma & Louise,” it’s a celebration and romance of the American road: the glowing vistas at dusk; the nostalgic, Americana atmosphere of ghost towns and run-down, low-rent decay that we embrace in our movies, as seen from a getaway car, which here—in a tribute to “Thelma & Louise” (as well as “Green Book”)—is also turquoise.
It’s first and foremost a black film for black folks, because it’s not easy in America for non-African-Americans to understand how it is when black folks get stopped in remote areas by the police. A very good, real-life, caught-on-camera example of how it often happens is to be found in the documentary “Wrestle.” To be fair, being a cop is possibly the toughest job in America. I have a good anecdote. You’ll have to keep reading.
What Goes Down in ‘Queen & Slim’
First, let it be noted that there’s a trend happening where some of our best African-American stories are being told and acted out by African-Brits. The male lead actor of “Queen & Slim,” Daniel Kaluuya, is British. I did not know this. I should have known this, because we’ve already got Idris Elba, Eamonn Walker, Naomie Harris, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Carmen Ejogo coming over here and acting blacker than our own black folks. (I’m black; I can say that.) And now add female lead Jamaican-British breakout/knockout model Jodie Turner-Smith to the mix.
Here’s a quick video about casting to find the right chemistry.
Anyway, these two play a couple out on a Tinder first date in Cleveland: Queen (Turner-Smith) is an attorney looking for guilt-relief after learning her client just got the death penalty. Slim (Kaluuya) is a sweet, unassuming, laid-back guy who works at Costco. True to her name, Queen is a tad princess-y and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Slim does not ring her sophistication-requirement bell, and they both recognize the date is tanking. He offers to drive her home, regardless.
They’re pulled over by a white policeman (musician Sturgill Simpson). Slim offers no hostility, but his query as to whether the officer could please hurry up searching the trunk, since it’s freezing out, is met with instantaneous cop hysteria: the drawn gun, tension ratcheted up to 11.
Queen’s attempt to assert her legal prowess only results in a nasty leg wound from getting cop-blasted. The resulting cop-and-Slim tussle results in a dead cop, due to the kill-or-be-killed nature of the situation.
Queen and Slim, like Thelma and Louise, flee the scene of the crime. Slim’s not sure; Queen asks, “Do you want to be owned by the state?” Obviously, they shouldn’t run. But given the circumstances, they obviously must.
They head to New Orleans to seek help from Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine). What does Uncle Earl do? Let’s say, similarly to 2005’s “Hustle & Flow,” he’s the manager of a few ladies lounging around his house in scant clothing and bathing suits.
In good outlaw fashion, Queen and Slim alter their hairstyles, with Queen transforming from lawyer-casual attire to a tiger-print miniskirt and python go-go boots, and Slim from everyday Joe to velour tracksuit-wearing possible gangsta. The black stereotypes are far from who they are, and so it becomes a quiet, shame-laden, hellish Halloween costume party for the both of them.
“Queen & Slim” takes its time, possibly a tad too much time at over two hours. But some scenes definitely benefit from the pacing. Such as when, having gotten an inkling from the way they’ve thus far handled an extreme crisis together, and realizing they have practically nothing left to lose, that all might warrant a right-here, right-now, second date.
And so, on a Deep South blues-bar dance floor, there is solace to be found in the fact that, although they are instantly recognized as fugitives from the law, nobody’s about to pick up the phone and call the cops. The heretofore missing chemistry is found in the dance. It’s sweet, tender, dreamy, and tragic; finding one’s predestined soul mate when you’re trying to outrun death row is tragedy writ large. But for a few cozy moments, they are transported, and we with them.
Unlike “Thelma & Louise” there are no sophisticated secondary storylines, like Brad Pitt’s charming thief, Thelma’s fool husband, and Harvey Keitel’s detective who keeps trying to offer the two women a way to soften the blow of the legal freight train bearing down on them. “Queen & Slim” is more one-note. But what a note.
Who’ll See It
What we’ve got here is difficult to nail down, genre-wise. Yeah, it’s a road movie, etc. Though slow-paced, it’s never boring. The tension is high, with pockets of relief; there’s much humor, and there is access to the humanity laid bare in characters who normally appear as stereotypes in lesser films.
And in the end, there’s a great love and an aching tragedy that’ll sit with you for a few days, in the ways we Americans prefer, like the haunting melancholy of a favorite country song. And incandescent acting, by Brits being ‘Muricans. And Jodie Turner-Smith is one chiseled, Nefertiti of an ebony goddess whose career will explode after this.
How well one can appreciate this tale viscerally depends, naturally, on one’s background and life experience: whether one got fed by the food stamps or by the silver spoon; whether one got to shine and excel in a supportive setting, or shone, excelled, and got called the N-word regardless; whether one experienced much peace, or grew up invisible and needed to stay that way in order to get anything at all out of life.
People of color don’t often get to see a realistic story. It’s either a Tyler Perry POV or a white director’s take. Here is, finally, a black, female screenplay writer and a black, female director, telling a tale America has rarely heard in a film language we all speak fluently. In the end, though, background matters little. As in all great storytelling—the humanity will speak to everyone. It’d be nice to see “Queen & Slim” get some Oscar recognition.
Oh, and that cop anecdote? I once tended bar in an off-duty cop & detective bar on the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, back when that area was still crack-dealer lethal. A strange no-man’s land: There was Robbie, jet-black detective with a Jheri curl and a .44 Magnum under his suit jacket, his detective girlfriend Delilah, who carried a pink-handled, snub-nosed revolver in her purse, and many successful crack dealers. And the cops and the dealers all knew each other, and drank together.
Once at 3:00 a.m., a young white cop, 25 years old, laid his soul bare, as bar patrons are wont to do if the barkeep is a good listener. “Mark,” he said, “I started off wanting to help people and do good. In three years, I’ve seen so much horrible stuff, I just don’t care about anything anymore.” He said that was par for the course with cops. Many cop suicides these days. As well as many Queen- and Slim-type existences in America. The times we live in. Sad. Scary. Go warm your hands at the warmth of the humanity at the heart of this tragedy.
’Queen and Slim’
Director: Melina Matsoukas
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine, Chloë Sevigny, Flea, Indya Moore
Running Time: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 27
Rated: 5 stars out of 5