It’s during one stretch of their desperate drive south that the eponymous black couple of Queen & Slim debate luck versus destiny as the universe’s driving force: is life random or preordained? Neither answer is encouraging. If it’s solely a matter of luck, then these two had the worst luck of being pulled over by a racist white cop over a minor traffic infraction. But their situation cannot be dismissed as cosmic misfortune; it’s the bleak reality of being black in America.
Nor is it fate that they must kill the cop in self-defense and run before they can be arrested. Life, as demonstrated by Queen and Slim’s attempts to escape a corrupt law that would murder them for so much less, is shaped by accidental actions and deliberate choices. To this end, Melina Matsoukas and Lena Waithe’s brilliant protest of police brutality nonetheless chooses to find the small moments of joy in a nightmare situation that brings not just two strangers, but the entire black community together.
Queen & Slim, directed by Matsoukas (Beyoncé’s “Formation” video) from a script by Waithe (The Chi, Boomerang), more than delivers on its killer logline. The duo previously collaborated on the “Thanksgiving” episode of Master of None, about queerness and family traditions, so it is a delight to see them take on such different material for their feature film debuts: a crime thriller, an on-the-road romance, and a meditation on immortality in an era of so many lives needlessly, violently cut short. Matching Waithe and Matsoukas at every step are the incredible performances of leads Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Widows), who continues to prove his incredible versatility, and newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith (Nightflyers). The latter brings dignity and grace to such an incredibly demanding role.
The audience knows as little about the unnamed duo at the start of the film as they do about each other, suffering through an awkward Tinder date that proves how poor of a match they are. She, an attorney, buries her neuroses and loss beneath a stern, assertive-bordering-on-bitchy facade. He, a shoe salesman, is accommodating to a fault, a man of faith who seems to be passively waiting for some divine sign. When they get pulled over by a Cleveland cop determined to find something to peg on them, a rapid escalation leads to the gun in his hands and the cop dead in the snow—and an impossible choice: start running or stay still still. But if they don’t move, they’re dead too.
What follows is a precarious exodus from Ohio to the Florida Keys, which simultaneously seems to take mere hours and years. It certainly feels like a lifetime’s worth of experiences as Queen and Slim take on new personas and leave their old lives in the rearview mirror. With no plan other than to keep moving, they embark on a modern Underground Railroad of guardians and benefactors, which provides the opportunity for a wide swath of cameos, from Bokeem Woodbine to Flea and Chloë Sevigny. Pose star Indya Moore plays a small but affecting role as a reminder that love can be found even in the direst of circumstances. The generosity and fervor of these strangers-turned-allies surprises Queen and Slim, who don’t even a moment to notice they’ve turned into legends in the making.
“You want to become the state’s property?” Queen hisses at Slim in the first moments of their new life when he considers turning himself in. Imprisoned or dead, he would no longer belong only to himself. But the truth is, the moment that gun went off, they both became icons for the black community, figures on whom to project hope, and in whose name to stage protests—or, in the case of some elders, to push back against. Some of these moments are played for humor, small breaks in the movie’s breathless pace, but overall these connections are poignant. In a world where Black boys and girls, men and women, become hashtags in death, Queen and Slim have the chance to attain a different sort of immortality.
The outstanding soundtrack is for the most part diegetic, contained on the CDs or radios found in each of Queen and Slim’s getaway cars, cueing up their emotional state at that moment in time: hyping them up or calming them down. It’s a magnificent device for checking in on them at various legs of their journey, as each ride comes with its own personality and limited music library: Lauryn Hill, Luther Vandross, Megan Thee Stallion, and many more. Because they ditched their phones immediately, there’s no Spotify playlist to sync up here.
Less effective is the use of voiceover at key moments. The words themselves are beautiful (like when Queen says she wants someone to kiss her scars but not erase them), but layering the dialogue over shots of the same characters initially looks more like bad dubbing before one catches on, and it undercuts the profundity of what’s being said.
Despite the frenetic pace of their flight, Queen—a woman who at the start of the film was so closed-off by trauma—takes a while to let down her guard and revel in the moment, to delight in one more breath than before. These interludes, one especially sweet one involving Slim and a horse, are a keen reminder of the resilience of joy.
Just like the debate between luck and destiny, Queen & Slim seems caught between going all-out for escapist fantasy and grounding the story in contemporary realism. It never entirely transcends the era in which it was made, which is probably by design. Radical as the film is by its mere existence, it can’t look too far ahead, can’t remove itself from the present in favor of a utopian future where Queen and Slim would not have to exist. It can only capture this moment, stretch it, memorialize it.
“I just want people to know I was here,” Queen says during one of their brief moments to breathe. There is no doubt of that.
Natalie Zutter cannot wait to see what is next for every single person involved in this film. Talk movies with her on Twitter @nataliezutter.