Queen & Slim is simultaneously beautiful and troubling. It is the feature film debut of director Melina Matsoukas, who famously merged staggering visuals with political urgency via her music video for Beyoncé’s “Formation”. She treads similar ground here, but the results aren’t as cohesive.
The duo of the title, left unnamed on-screen until the film’s climax, are played by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith. They meet on a Tinder date, both more interested in the food than in each other, and drive home together mutually grouchy. Then horror strikes: they are pulled over by a police officer, who is immediately threatening and confrontational, and a scuffle ensues. Queen (Turner-Smith) is injured and Slim (Kaluuya) shoots the cop dead in self-defence. The pair decide they have no other option but to go on the run – to Cuba, ideally.
As they cross the country, from their native Ohio to the bayous of Florida, Queen and Slim become folk heroes – figureheads for black radicalism and icons of resistance. They seek shelter with Queen’s pimp uncle (an electric Bokeem Woodbine) and later a wealthy white couple (Chloë Sevigny and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea), and begin to fall for one another.
There is a luminous magic to much of Queen & Slim, particularly when it focuses on its leads merely existing – riding horses, dancing at a slinky nightclub filled with smoke and neon, and sourcing affection amid mutual trauma. Matsoukas has a deep love for landscapes and textures. The initial bartering between Slim’s respectful, prayer-before-eating “good ol’ boy” and Queen’s cool, feminist professional feel lived-in and real. The many black faces the pair encounter issue little nods of recognition or shared commonality, regardless of their very different careers or lifestyles.
But as assured as Matsoukas often is, she also has a tendency to fill the screen with impactful visuals that feel discordant and bizarre when placed alongside a deeper narrative. One scene, at a Black Lives Matter protest that spirals out of control, is intercut with Queen and Slim having sex for the first time in the back of a parked car. It is baffling.
The film’s politics are similarly uncertain. Twice, Queen and Slim encounter black police officers who break protocol to assist them, pushing an ideology that feels unwieldy and troubling. The film seems to argue that the answer to preventing police brutality, specifically against black bodies, is merely to recruit more black cops – that the problem with law enforcement isn’t institutional but personal, and to be untangled on a case-by-case basis. Even if such messaging is unintentional, neither Matsoukas nor screenwriter Lena Waithe are clear enough in their political goals to confirm either way.
Queen & Slim ultimately proves slightly hollow in its efforts to be both a deeply romantic lovers-on-the-run movie and a political statement. There are thrilling moments of heightened fantasy here, such as Queen’s decision to disguise herself in a skin-tight zebra-skin dress and go-go boots, but more often the film abandons its pulpier leanings in favour of melodrama.
Still, Kaluuya, far and away one of the most exciting young actors the UK has produced in recent years, is spellbinding. And newcomer Turner-Smith is a quietly forceful presence in her first starring role. You just wish they were surrounded by something that hung together less peculiarly.
Ultimately, Queen & Slim is much like a russian doll, each additional layer made up of glorious wonder and slightly bad taste.