Director Melina Matsoukas and screenwriter Lena Waithe, both of whom are also producers on the project, made an impressive feature-film debut with the tragic love story Queen & Slim, which opened this year’s AFI Fest. The film tells a captivating story as the characters’ journey takes them from strangers to inseparable lovers.
The film opens with the two characters, whose names aren’t mentioned until the end of the film but will be referred to by the titular nicknames, in Ohio eating dinner on a first date after meeting on Tinder. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) doesn’t seem impressed by the restaurant; Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) appreciates that it’s black-owned. They talk like normal people rather than movie characters providing exposition. The date isn’t romantic, but they are playful together, which causes Slim to slightly swerve when he pulls his phone back from her. This catches the attention of a police officer, who pulls them over. The cop escalates the situation, as does Queen, a criminal defense attorney who wants to record what is happening on her phone. A skirmish occurs, resulting in the officer’s death. Slim wants to stay, but Queen suggests they run, turning them into fugitives.
The script and Matsoukas’ direction do a great job of creating suspense. For example, when their car runs out of gas in Kentucky, they get picked up by a sheriff, who wants to help them before learning who they are. Dashcam footage of the incident hits the internet, and Queen and Slim become unintentional folk heroes as the cop had killed an African American man.
Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) is a pimp living in New Orleans. They head there and then decide to head to Cuba. While in New Orleans and on the road to Miami, more of Queen’s history is revealed to Slim, and the viewer, bringing them closer together and also bringing the audience closer to the character. Queen and Slim have a reward placed upon them, but their crime is also inspiring to other African Americans, who take to the streets, in an edge-of-the-seat sequence because things could go wrong so quickly. Dickson Obahor and Bryant Tardy play a father and son who encounter Queen and Slim, and they are so funny I wouldn’t minded following them on an adventure. Waithe also shows African Americans aren’t a monolith of thought and the pair encounter a man who disagrees with what they did.
Queen & Slim comes to a believable though complicated conclusion. While satisfied with the story’s end, I am not sure what outcome for the characters would have satisfied me because of my conflicted feelings towards the main characters thanks to the performances by Turner-Smith and Kaluuya. The only misstep in Waithe’s plot was a scene at gas station where I didn’t believe the action of either Slim or the gas attendant he was robbing.
Queen & Slim is not only a thrilling drama infused with social commentary, but it also suggests the beginning of two great film careers behind the camera.