As they sit quietly munching their meals at the quick-service restaurant, we can see that Angela “Queen” Johnson and Ernest “Slim” Hinds’ first date is already off to a bad start. Queen winces when Slim pauses to silently say grace, and she can’t help needling him for choosing such a cheap eating place. But even though he’s a bit defensive, Slim firmly announces there’s a point where the criticism needs to stop.
That’s our introduction to two characters whom we imagine will have no reason to ever see each other again. Statuesque, haughty, beautiful Angela (Jodie Turner-Smith) and earnest Ernest (Daniel Kaluuya) aren’t calling themselves Queen and Slim quite yet. That will come later, after their car gets pulled over by a revved-up white Cleveland, Ohio police officer, in an incident that will change the two young African Americans’ destinies permanently. Queen & Slim, one of the year’s most provocative films, is powerful stuff, neatly wrapped in realistic yet mythological terms by the players and their director, Melina Matsoukas.
That evening, push comes to shove and our two romantic/heroic figures are obliged to hit the road. Before we can stop and ponder yet another in an endless procession of violent “Black Lives Matter” incidents, Queen and Slim split in his car for points South, trailed every inch of the way by alarmed TV news bulletins. En route they experience the America most of us recognize — a little outright hostility, one or two Good Samaritans, some genuine innocent curiosity, a few folks who seem sincere but have ulterior motives.
But as they travel on, from Ohio through Kentucky and Tennessee on the way to New Orleans, they find their notoriety has preceded them and they’re already folk heroes in the community. Every Black person in America knows them on sight, but they keep it on the downlow. Overnight, Queen and Slim have truly become the Black Bonnie and Clyde. Whatever they might say or do is now secondary to that.
They make an interesting couple, constantly bickering yet increasingly reliant on each other as they dodge police and nosy strangers. With her majestic face and figure, Turner-Smith is iconic before she even utters a line of dialogue. Meanwhile UK native actor Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Panther) functions convincingly as a well-meaning everyman, in over his head with no way out and everything on the line. Screenwriters Lena Waithe and James Frey, directed by Matsoukas in her feature debut, set up their reluctant rebels as a pair of ordinary young adults who have greatness thrust upon them — as well as the threat of instant death every time they go outside.
Queen and Slim’s getaway takes them to a remarkable succession of vivid scenes in the heart of the Southern Black community. Their brief stay in the decaying Louisiana Gothic home of Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine, licking his chops) is worth its own movie, as Earl the pimp shows off his stable of girls —notably Indya Moore — while fending off annoying family ties. Sample dialogue, referring to another relative: “Iraq fucked him up.” By the time the fugitives take off in Earl’s cherished turquoise Catalina we wish they could have stayed longer.
But the key scene in Queen and Slim’s upward trajectory from potential victims to revolutionary martyrs takes place in a little country music club. (They can’t help ducking in. All the while they’re on the run they inexplicably pull off the road to nonchalantly ride a horse or have sex in the getaway car, almost as if they know they’re romantic figures in a movie. It drives us crazy in the middle of this tense, life-or-death scenario.) With a wink, the bartender gives them drinks on the house and lets them know everybody in the place is on their side. Throw in the mesmerizing music of Dev “Blood Orange” Hynes and we’ve got an irresistible legend. This attractive but otherwise nondescript couple has climbed the heights, unwillingly but unmistakably. Unfortunately, the only way down is to crash out. But they make a splendid subject for murals. Queen & Slim begins with an injustice and climaxes with immortality.