Comparing Melina Matsoukas’s mesmerizing film Queen & Slim to Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass or David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is perhaps quite natural for the lazy film reviewer. After all, they all portray a couple on the run from the law. But that’s where the similarities end.
Slim, played by Daniel Kaluuya, and Queen, portrayed by Jodie Turner-Smith in her first starrting role, are different from the star-crossed characters in these other flicks in one important regard: The others are all criminals and outlaws, while the pair in this searing indictment of policing in America happen to be innocent.
The improbable couple, who are finishing up their just as improbable first date on Cleveland’s east side, are in Slim’s car, and he can hardly wait to drop off Queen, who feels the same way when a cop pulls them over for a minor traffic infraction. In spite of the fact all of Slim’s “papers are in order” and he has no warrants, the cop hauls him out of the car and proceeds to conduct a search of the trunk.
However, Queen, who is an attorney, then gets out of the car and asks the cop for his badge number and demands to know why he’s searching the car without a warrant. He responds by ordering her to stay out of the increasingly tense encounter. As she reaches for her cell phone to record the incident (after yelling at him that she was going to do so), the cop shoots her in the leg. Slim wrestles the gun away from the cop, they struggle on the ground, and when the cop (who we later learn has killed an unarmed black man two years prior) tried to attack with his fists, Slim finds the gun in the snow and shoots the cop in self-defense, instantly killing him.
Of course the chase is on, as the couple — on the demand of attorney Queen who says they need to think things through before surrendering — flee the scene.
Their flight, fueled by fears minorities are all too familiar with, takes them on a journey through a black side of our country’s culture and zeitgeist that is unparalleled in American cinematic history. The writing of Lena Waithe makes the dialogue between the two protagonists spark and crackle as they first make their way to New Orleans, where Queen’s uncle, played brilliantly by Bokeem Woodbine, grudgingly assists them in making their way to Florida and closer to the hoped-for freedom of Cuba.
White film critics just need to shut the fuck up about this flick, since they would be critiquing a side of life they don’t in the least understand. But whites who want to experience — at least for two hours — what it really means to be black in America, should flock to see Queen & Slim — and take all of their friends with them.
While it might not win any Oscars, this is by far one of the best films of the year.