“If it ain’t the black Bonnie and Clyde!” exclaims Uncle Earl, Bokeem Woodbine’s character in Queen & Slim, upon seeing its two hapless heroes. I can almost hear a studio executive joyfully uttering the same sentiment upon finishing Lena Waithe’s screenplay. That line does, indeed, pretty much summarize Melina Matsoukas’ by turns powerful, overwrought, poetic, earnest, and pretentious debut feature.
If I were to point out one crucial difference, it would be the deliberate, delectable nihilism of Arthur Penn’s classic, his anti-heroes as easy to root for as they are irredeemable. In that sense, Queen & Slim more closely resembles the other classic “outlaws-on-the-run,” Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise. Substitute the feminist motifs with relevant current themes of race, police corruption, and prejudice, and you’ll have a clear sense of what to expect.
“A tense confrontation swiftly establishes Slim as ‘a black man who killed a cop and took his gun’…”
Like the two aforementioned films, at its heart, Queen & Slim is a love story. It begins in Cleveland, Ohio, on an atmospheric, rainy night (kudos to cinematographer Tat Radcliffe for the film’s old-school, grainy look). Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) is a lawyer who’s had a bad day. She meets Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) on Tinder. “You have this sad look,” she tells him over a cheap diner meal. “I felt sorry for you.” On the way home, Slim’s flirting causes him to swerve a little. A white cop pulls them over. A tense confrontation swiftly establishes Slim as “a black man who killed a cop and took his gun.” The two become outlaws/national celebrities.
Numerous (mis)adventures follow. Our heroes run out of gas, which leads to a nerve-wracking detour with an off-duty sheriff (Benito Martinez). In New Orleans, Queen’s pimp uncle Earl (Woodbine, in a memorable extended cameo) hooks them up with money, haircuts, a car – and a potential flight “over the water,” and out of the country. I’ll leave it up to you to find out whether the couple makes it across the border.