Among the various music videos that director Melina Matsoukas has made, the one for “Formation” by Beyonce is easily one of her most prolific. It serves as an ode to black pride in the face of racial oppression and police brutality and is shot with colorful vibrancy. As Matsoukas makes her feature film debut with Queen & Slim, she demonstrates the exact same singular vision. Even when the picture becomes hard to watch, it’s still impossible to look away.
The film opens with the titular protagonists going on a first date after interacting on Tinder. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) is a criminal defense attorney while Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) is a retail worker. As their awkward date continues, they get pulled over by a police officer who antagonizes them before Slim shoots him in self-defense. As they go on the run, they become labeled cop killers by the media and political symbols by members of the African-American community who they cross paths with.
Rather than depict politically charged violence which would’ve furthered its Bonnie and Clyde comparisons, both Matsoukas and screenwriter Lena Waithe give a picture a more ruminative approach, letting the love that Queen and Slim show act as a form of protest. They don’t want to cause any fights or, as Slim says at one point, “bend the world.” The two lovers just want to love in peace even as they’re on the move, aware that the odds are stacked against them.
Additionally, the cinematography by Tat Radcliffe is incredibly picturesque. Various shots that Radcliffe captures such as one of a burning car feel as if they’re moving paintings. Even the scene where we see Queen walk out of a room with her new haircut makes it feel as if she’s been reborn since the blue color scheme in the background reflects her gradual feelings of release and confidence.
The loving chemistry between the two leads helps give the film its political urgency. While they’re ambivalent towards one another at first due to their personalities and different class statuses, one still can’t help but want them to prevail. After playing an angel in Get Out and a devil in Widows, Daniel Kaluuya plays someone who’s more in between. As the reluctant anti-hero Slim, Kaluuya presents him with a rather melancholic self-awareness. Slim wants to act as a free spirit to make the most of the potentially limited time on this Earth he feels he might have.
Meanwhile, a star is born in the form of Jodie Turner-Smith. She initially plays Queen as guarded and blunt before slowly offering sly insight into her tormented psyche. Even without speaking, her eyes act as the window revealing scars that she keeps hidden. Turner-Smith is simultaneously resilient, sensual, and vulnerable, possessing a star presence that the silver screen could use more of.
Neither anti-cop or pro-violence, Queen and Slim still works as a powerful protestation. By portraying a black couple expressing blissful love, it becomes a searing indictment of police officers who have enacted violence and brutality towards countless innocent African-American civilians. Even if the protagonists don’t want to make a statement, their romance still acts as a strong stand against racism.