Set amid a cold night in Cleveland, Ohio, Melina Matsoukas' Queen & Slim is a unique and powerful telling of a Black man and woman whose forgettable first date escalates tragically when one of them kills a police officer in self-defense.
Told with a fresh perspective, Matsoukas captures the angst, dread, and uneasiness of the circumstances, bringing forth an authenticity to the real-life racial divide. The film does, at times, fall victim to cinematic expectations, most notably concerning the dynamic relationship that unfolds between our newly crowned fugitives, but that is forgivable given everything else the film does right.
Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith beautifully capture the energy of the moment, transforming from simple, fresh adolescence enjoying the awkwardness of a Tinder date to viral sensations who have prompted a nationwide manhunt. But unlike perceived social heroes before them, Matsoukas is able to strip away the limelight and showcase her characters as they struggle to understand the fullness of the situation. This all while working hard to learn about the person sitting in the car beside them.
Presented in much the same way as a television series, we follow along as Queen and Slim navigate the hostile roads, attempting to migrate down to Miami in hopes of scoring a ride to Cuba. The voyage seems simple enough; however, their journey across the rural south proves that friends and enemies exist in even the most unexpected places.
Along the way, they meet a series of vital supporting players that assist in pushing the story forward. Though some are more memorable than others, they all help shape the narrative path, showcasing moments of kindness and support within a telling flooded with hate and fear.
On occasion, we do get to see life outside the car's front seat - though I should note that most of the film takes place there. Matsoukas' tight shots, never entirely on center, allows for the eye to wander. It's a unique strategy that proves extremely effective, forcing you to take in the entire screen as you remain attentive and alert.
As the on-screen relationship begins to grow, you start to notice the slight nuances. The unexpected heartache, frustration, and fear have bonded our two fugitives. They could never have prepared for what life has suddenly thrown at them, forcing them outside their comfort zone as they work to survive. When they pull over to grab a drink at a bar, they find themselves immediately recognized by the bartender. Though sudden fear pulsated through their veins, they unexpectedly feel safe amidst the crowd. These moments ground the film, preventing it from becoming larger than itself, reminding us of the innocence that exists within our two leads.
As Queen and Slim reach Miami's coast and begin to finally breathe a short sigh of relief, much like the opening sequence, the audience can't settle the restless feeling. Credit Matsoukas for that. It took less than two hours to create that connection between protagonists and audience. Her innovative approach is what separates Queen & Slim from the countless films like it; however, it’s the film's story that will resonate long after their journey ends.
*This review originally appeared as part of our 2019 AFI FEST coverage.