The first feature film of Melina Matsoukas, best known for directing music videos for Beyoncé and Rihanna, Queen and Slim stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as a couple forced to go on the run after an encounter with a racist cop. The film explores the ways that the actions and visibility of black Americans become scrutinised, magnified, and iconized in ways beyond their control, both by black eyes and non-black eyes.
At the beginning of the film, Queen (Turner-Smith) is presented as a prickly, cynical, but intelligent criminal lawyer, who later also reveals tremendous pain and personal trauma within her family history. She suffers no fools and no loud chewing. In contrast, Slim (Kaluuya) is an average man, coming from a modest, close-knit, and religious family. He isn’t particularly charismatic, but he has a healthy dose of self-confidence and likeability. Even visually, Queen—in her demure turtle neck, pristine white jeans, and trailing braids—and Slim—in his non-descript, navy blue sweater and brown jacket—do not seem compatible. They clearly don’t click when they first meet. Although Slim is attracted to Queen, she is far too critical and condescending towards him. But what should have been an awkward and quickly forgotten Tinder date is completely changed by the actions of a corrupt cop, who pulls them over and points a gun at them for a minor traffic offense. What were personal and instinctual decisions to fight back and run away then becomes part of a bigger narrative.
Over the course of the film, the main characters lose ownership over their images and actions. As Queen and Slim are cut off from their past and private lives, their intimate movements become public and symbolic. Their narrative is taken from them and they are valourised or demonized by those who don’t know them. To the foul-mouthed man that Slim accidentally hits with a car, the duo is a symbol of black resistance and power rising up. To the dancing patrons at the live music bar, Queen and Slim are a pair of romantic runaways, youth and beauty worth preserving. To the grumpy mechanic, they are a nuisance as their actions (although they really had no other options in the moment) have increased the danger to black folks and given the police a new excuse to target black citizens. To the young boy, the couple are glamourous and dangerous celebrities to emulate. And to every cop, they are just criminals to hunt down and kill without justice, following an endless chain of references to unlawful murders of African-Americans by the police and systemic racism. No one they meet really sees Queen and Slim as they truly are. Only they can see themselves and in their heightened circumstances their romance begins and grows.
By the end, however, they are transfigured into a stereotype, clothed in the garments of a pimp and a prostitute, posing on the hood of a flashy car, which is completely at odds with their original selves (an educated lawyer and a modest everyman whose personalized licence plate read “Trust God”). They are immortalized in a single, striking, black-and-white photograph where the only sliver of their true selves is in Queen’s gaze. The camera manages to capture the moment she begins to realize that she may be falling in love with Slim. This bold image recurs at the end of the film when it is turned into a mural, memorializing the two in an honest moment but dressed in someone else’s clothes. Their complete and flawed personalities and their odd-couple relationship with its unexpected beginning become palimpsest to the final image that remains, distorted by the police who insists they are criminals and the public who upholds them as heroes.
It’s also worth noticing that the dash cam footage of Slim shooting the racist cop out of self-defence is also in black-and-white. It echoes the simplistic, outsider view of this incident, which is widely digested by the secondary characters of the film, and is at odds with the vivid, glowing colours that permeate the rest of the movie. It is as if to say that the images that remain (i.e. the black-and-white photo and video), although ostensibly showing facts, do not capture the fullness of Queen and Slim as living, breathing humans with wants, needs, and experiences that extend beyond their week-long manhunt. And that is part of the tragedy of their fictional deaths and the real life deaths of countless black Americans slain by racists and corrupt police: multi-faceted human beings calcified into a symbolic snapshot.
Ratings (out of 5):
Overall Average: 4.4