Film & Television

‘Queen & Slim,’ Melina Matsoukas’s Stunning
Feature Debut

A lot can go wrong when you swipe right on Tinder, the online dating app. A profile picture might be Photoshopped (or decades old). Expectations of intimacy might not be in alignment. You might have nothing whatsoever in common. Or, as you’re driving your thoroughly uninterested date home, you might get pulled over by a trigger-happy, racist cop and end up a fugitive, running for your life.

That’s more or less the setup of Melina Matsoukas’s Queen & Slim

The director, known for her work in music videos, particularly Beyoncé’s “Formation” and HBO special “Lemonade,” makes her powerful feature film debut with a stunning, heartbreaking story about two accidental outlaws, strangers (and not exactly compatible ones) whose lives become inextricably intertwined during an unavoidable five-minute altercation that ends in violence. 

A young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) and a young black woman (Jodie Turner-Smith) are on a lackluster date at a casual diner in Cleveland. The woman, who can barely conceal her boredom and disdain, accuses the man of choosing the venue because it’s cheap. “Because it’s black-owned,” he corrects her, then asks her why she finally responded to his “extremely well-crafted and spell-checked” Tinder message after so many weeks. She had a bad day, she explains, and didn’t want to be alone. The woman, we learn, is a defense attorney; her client was just sentenced to death. The man, who works at Costco and is clearly in over his head, offers to drive her home. 

It’s late, dark, and the streets are deserted. The two are stopped by a belligerent police officer for a minor traffic violation. The man — we’ll call him “Slim,” although the eponymous nickname is never used in the film — is humble and respectful, cooperating and responding to the officer as “sir.” Meanwhile, “Queen” is becoming ever more assertive, challenging the patrolman’s actions and motives. When she reaches for her cell phone to tape the encounter (it’s her right, she declares), he shoots her in the leg. A struggle ensues, and Slim ends up killing the officer in self-defense.

“I’m not a criminal,” he protests to Queen.

“You are now,” she replies.

Still dazed, the two head south — Queen has an uncle in New Orleans who may be able to help them — and the rest of the two-hour-plus film follows their desperate attempt to escape. The police car’s dash cam captured the evening’s tragic incident, and their pictures are on the front page and the evening news. They are hunted by authorities as “cop killers.” They are lionized by “Black Lives Matter” activists. But, in reality, they are neither villains nor heroes; we are reminded over and over that they are just regular people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time and whose lives have been torn away from them.

Queen & Slim includes many of the elements of other, classic “on the run” films, like Thelma and Louise, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Badlands. When the fugitives reach the Crescent City, Queen’s uncle greets them with a bit of sarcasm: “Well, if it isn’t the black Bonnie and Clyde.” They are aided by sympathetic allies (both black and white), victimized by those who disapprove of what they’ve done or simply sense their vulnerability (again, both black and white). There are moments of terror and moments of sheer beauty. Although they both know that the odds are not in their favor, there are times when they are elated by their own freedom and anonymity. Racing against time, they embrace experiences that make them feel alive. Slim, a determined abstainer has his first drink. Queen, urban and cynical, offers to say grace before a meal. And something remarkable happens. They fall in love.



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