On the journey back from a first date, Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) are pulled over by a police officer. This short, early occurrence in Melina Matsoukas’ Queen & Slim sets off a chain of events that blend piercingly relevant drama with an astonishing and soulful road trip movie, one of the finest in a long American genre tradition. Amidst a politically aggravated backdrop, Queen & Slim takes time to consider both the brutal and the beautiful, presenting (if not necessarily resolving) dilemmas of faith and ethics that intertwine themselves into the protagonists’ story.
Lena Waithe’s phenomenal script is the core of the film’s success. Queen & Slim features fascinating looks at predestination, fate and circumstance. At the core of it all is a repeated emphasis on personal and collective histories, legacies and memories: different characters interpret and react to the pair’s situation in different ways, as they do themselves. The way that the world views individuals is the core of what’s explored by Waithe’s story, and Matsoukas brings it to life with gorgeous vividness and style.
The film drives forward almost relentlessly, boldly confronting difficult situations without hesitation. But this is no socio-political melodrama. Like Thelma and Louise or Hunt for the Wilderpeople, this is a deeply personalised film about escaping judgement and scorn from those who would be too quick to apply it. Queen and Slim’s conversations feel like both wider philosophical discussions and more individualised tales of how they have lived their lives, preceding the pair’s newfound status in the story as icons of the Black Lives Matter movement. The whole time their story told to a soundtrack oozing with groove, and magical moments that capture the genuine, growing relationship between the two wildly different characters.
Queen & Slim relies heavily on its leading stars, Kaluuya and Turner-Smith, to carry the burdens and the beauty of the film. They feel astonishingly genuine when capturing the relationship that Slim and Queen have, at first clearly oppositional and gradually drawing together. If anything, it is almost disappointing when this relationship turns romantic (not helped by a tonally divergent love scene, the only major hiccup). Something about it feels stronger when it is viewed not through the lens of love, or even friendship, but alliance. The two become inseparable as an idea and an icon, far more than they ever do as a couple. How through their joint struggle they become entrenched in collective memory is as much the focus as is their camaraderie.
Filmed with a nod to the beauty of the American countryside while still exploring deeply held prejudices found within it, Queen & Slim is a synthesis between wildly different American imaginations. On the one hand, their world is a land of natural beauty and promises of prosperity. It is also the home of ugly institutional forces designed for oppression and violence. Both of these feature heavily, brought together in the best American road movie in years. Stylish and heartfelt, Queen & Slim is a powerful statement on the drive towards a fairer world.
Queen & Slim is out in cinemas now.