Every now and then, a film comes along that stands so strong in its own message that it cannot be described as anything less than perfect. Granted, nearly every film has its flaws or I’d be out of a writing job – but some just feel spotless. They remind you that cinema is an ever-changing medium, while still wholly true to its roots; that the golden age of Hollywood can bleed into the contemporary, allowing something brand new to emerge. Queen & Slim finds itself within that singular space of cinematic vibrancy and topical urgency.
The film opens in a diner with a first date between a young man (Daniel Kaluuya) and a defense attorney (Jodie Turner-Smith). Formally, not once is she Queen and not once is he Slim. The characters are nameless to their audience, something which – for writer Lena Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas – parallels America’s indifference towards Black identities. On their way home, they are pulled over by the police for – you guessed it – the most trivial non-issue: a turn signal. Forcing Slim out of the car, the officer evades any request for a warrant through threats and force. Slim kindly asks the officer to hurry up, given how cold it is. “Please,” he says. The situation quickly escalates, and Slim shoots the officer in self-defense. Terrified of the repercussions, the pair find themselves on the run. This subversion of expectations paves the way for a vital commentary on police brutality and the ways in which a poisonous system can target communities.
Directed by the Music Video Queen herself, it is no surprise that the visuals in Queen & Slim are utterly hypnotic. Matsoukas brings her artistic prowess and past direction (including, but not limited to, Beyoncé’s “Formation”) to the project, making it a stunning feat wherein the visual art is integral to the story. It showcases just how much both Queen and Slim change from beginning to end: the feverish first act is defined by hues of blue and red before the visual tone then migrates to sunshine and warmer imagery in its final scenes. In the diner, they wear casual, everyday clothing; by the end, they are sporting red velvet tracksuits and animal print knee-high boots that feel straight out of a blaxploitation film. With every minute of their journey, they are changing because of it.
I had the pleasure of sitting front-row as Matsoukas and Waithe discussed how the film first came about, as well as what they hoped audiences took away from it. Referring to the film as “a meditation on Blackness,” Waithe established that she wrote it for Black audiences, but that because of this fact, everyone should see it. The plight of Black Americans is constantly slighted within Hollywood – rarely told by those who experience it. Black films are considered palatable when they emerge from a white gaze. Ira Madison III, who moderated the talk, touched on this by quoting Marlon James: “When you make things for the white gaze, you are at the mercy of falling down completely when they stop gazing.” This is why it was essential for Waithe to draw solely from the Black experience.
Upon Kaluuya’s request to play Slim, as well as Matsoukas’ decision to have this be her first feature film, Waithe realized just how important this project would become. “People were just like, what do you want? Tell us, name a price,” begins Waithe. “That’s when I remember calling Melina saying ‘they want it, let’s make a list of demands.’” Amongst this list of demands were a final cut authority and the promise that Matsoukas could shoot it on 35mm film. “If it does well, what it says to Hollywood is not just ‘oh, let’s make more Black movies with a message,’ but ‘let’s do more Black movies where Black people are in the driver’s seat and they get the final say on what’s on the screen,’” says Waithe. Shot and released in the same year, Queen & Slim is a testament to authentic filmmaking. Given America’s current divisive political landscape, this film is urgent.
Now, I could talk about the writing and direction forever, but what really ties all these elements together is the cast’s sensational performances. Daniel Kaluuya proves once again that he is one of the most powerful actors of this generation; he balances vulnerability and strength in a way that can bring audiences to tears in a millisecond. You would never know that Jodie Turner-Smith is the first-time lead; she brings some of the rawest and visceral talents to the project, leaving this particular audience floored. Naturally, then, the pair together were an absolute tour-de-force. You fall in love with their characters so quickly; he chews too loudly, she glares at him – it’s all quite poetic. The film also has some quite iconic appearances from Bokeem Woodbine, Indya Moore, Chloë Sevigny, and Flea.
To call Queen & Slim the new Bonnie and Clyde or the new Romeo and Juliet is to do the film a colossal disservice. The film exists on a pillar of its own, amounting to something larger than any one genre. It is an odyssey, a love story, and a horror of the highest degree. This movie was not made; it was born. It has a beating heart that permeates every word, glance, or shiver. There’s a pulse that transcends storyline and emotion, and that can only emerge from the need for something to be said. Queen & Slim has this drive and presents it in the most gloriously heart-wrenching way.
“Can I be your legacy?”
“You already are.”