If you have any awareness of how people of color are treated in America, often if not routinely, when they’re stopped on the road by police, you’re likely to watch the early scenes of Queen & Slim with your heart in your throat. Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith play two people tentatively negotiating a first date on a cold night in Cleveland: He’s Slim, a nice guy with a job at Costco. She’s Queen, a lawyer trying to shake off a bad day in court—one of her clients got the death penalty. The date isn’t going so well; it gets worse after Slim offers to drive Queen home.
The two are stopped by a white cop with a chip on his shoulder. (He’s played by actor and musician Sturgill Simpson.) Slim strives to be respectful throughout the encounter; Queen knows what his rights are and tries to assert them, though the cop is having none of it. The molecules around these three become charged. The bullying cop discharges his gun, wounding Queen and setting off a chain of events that whirl by in a blur. The action swerves into an act of self-defense that’s bad for everybody; the cop ends up dead.
And then Queen and Slim do the thing they shouldn’t do, which is the only thing they can do: They take off, knowing there will be no fairness for them in the criminal-justice system. Early on, Queen & Slim becomes a lovers-on-the-lam movie, although these two aren’t yet even close to being lovers—they barely like each other. They take to the road, becoming, as one of the movie’s characters refers to them, the “black Bonnie and Clyde,” and as with that infamous pair, there’s both euphoria and tragedy in their story.
Queen & Slim is the feature debut of Melina Matsoukas, director of Beyoncé’s “Formation” video. The screenplay is by Lena Waithe, drawn from a story by Waithe and James Frey. If you’re looking for a strictly moral tale, this isn’t it—Queen & Slim is a movie made of equal parts sorrow and glamour, all tempered by the grim reality that during the course of their odyssey Queen and Slim do some things they’re not proud of.
But there’s no getting around the appeal of these two characters, as Kaluuya and Turner-Smith play them: Slim is a guy who was raised right, always anxious about doing the right thing—Kaluuya makes you feel the weight of his sense of resignation, once he realizes he’s committed a deed that can’t be undone. And Turner-Smith’s Queen is self-assured to the point of being intimidating. During their journey, the duo stop for help at the house of Queen’s Uncle Earl (played, wonderfully, by Bokeem Woodbine). It’s not exactly clear what Uncle Earl does for a living, but you can pretty much guess: He’s surrounded by a bevy of tough, leggy ladies who cater to his whims, and they show kindness to Queen and Slim, too, offering a necessary change of clothes for both. Queen trades her off-duty lawyer-wear of jeans and a shirt for a tiny, tight dress and sky-high python boots; she allows the women to remove her braids, revealing a gorgeous, close-cropped cap of hair. In this new getup she looks and acts even more regal than before, but she shows vulnerability too, particularly when she and Slim get past their awkwardness and realize they’ve got no one but each other. Their love scenes are mournfully tender.
Queen & Slim doesn’t move along quite as briskly as it should, but certain scenes have a glorious, dreamy energy, courtesy of cinematographer Tat Radcliffe. At one point the two outlaws stop at a juke joint somewhere in Georgia, where they’re treated like royalty by customers and bar staff alike. The club seems to melt around them as, entwined, they dip and sway to the music. Their fate is already sealed, but for a few golden, molten moments, they’re living the life they deserve, one of warmth and security and love. It’s a bubble too fragile to last, but to be inside it with them feels like a kind of grace.