Queen & Slim, written by the Emmy winner Lena Waithe and starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, follows a black Ohio couple on the run after they kill a cop in self-defense during a traffic stop on their first date. During the stop, the officer riffles through the trunk of Slim’s car; finding only boxes of sneakers, he draws his gun and orders Slim to the ground. Queen hops out of the car to defend Slim, and the cop shoots at her before a struggle ensues and Slim gets hold of the gun.
The couple’s survival of the encounter is a departure from the grainy bystander videos and police dashcam tapes that have been released in recent years. The bulk of the film follows Queen and Slim (the “black Bonnie and Clyde,” as another character calls them) trying to avoid capture as they journey from Cleveland to the Florida Keys,
in an effort to reach Cuba. Along the way, they are confronted by reminders of America’s racist legacy: prisoners working a far-off field in the South; police officers in riot gear at protests that boil over into violence.
This film shows what can happen when excellent writing and a visionary female director come together. Under director Melina Matsoukas — known for directing episodes of Insecure, Master of None, and music videos for powerful artists like Whitney Houston, Rihanna, Beyonce, Ciara, Solange, Lady Gaga, and more — viewers get a glimpse of Black life from a rare, genuine, and honest perspective. With strong visual storytelling talent, Matsoukas harnesses the silent cry of marginalized voices and projects it on-screen in a gripping way.
Though some scenes in Queen & Slim are violent, that violence is depicted in a justifiable way — because the real lives of marginalized people can be violent, and not by their own choosing. It definitely matters that a Black woman is behind the lens of this type of film; it’s possible that no other demographic could have orchestrated a story so infused with the unspoken cultural and racial nuances of America’s Black folks.
With a screenplay by the boundary-pushing Lena Waithe and a story by James Frey (who’s known for writing candidly), Queen & Slim is unapologetically Black in its appeal.
In Queen & Slim, Black people save themselves. The misunderstood, the innocent, the guilty, the White allies, the good cops (as well as the bad) are all given space to be just who they are: flawed humans.
As Slim, Kaluuya perfectly personifies Black male vulnerability and frailty and every man’s desire to experience and have love. His performance is subtle, nuanced, and powerful, and the chemistry between him and Turner-Smith is electric.
As Uncle Earl, Bokeem Woodbine is a study in character development. He shows great range as both a gentle pimp with a heart of gold and a shrewd veteran who hasn’t yet shaken off his regrets.
Chloe Sevigny is engaging as the stuffy wife of a husband (Michael Peter Balzary) who is loyal to a fellow veteran. Really, the entire cast is strong, and each individual character is well developed and makes a lasting impression. The many serene scenes of beautiful, rural Southern backroads provide a strong counterpoint to the seriousness of the circumstances at the heart of the story.
The soundtrack is also spot on, paying homage to decades of Black music, from gospel singer Marvin Sapp’s “The Best in Me” to the sounds of Raphael Saadiq and Bilal.
In this film, there’s a beauty in the ugly moments of life, which are portrayed in a way that’s rarely seen in major feature films. Misguided activism, perceptions of innocence and guilt based on racial identity, and reaching for the freedom to live life without restraints are all addressed.
This intense story has violence, sex/nudity, swearing, and adult drinking, but it also has powerful messages about humanity, race, and love. That makes it a compelling choice for parents to watch with older teens if they want them to have a broader understanding of the experiences of those who are often discriminated against by police, of relatives or friends from communities often marginalized or silenced in the media, or of anyone who’s seen as “guilty” before a crime is ever committed.