Published Nov 21, 2019There is a scene in Melina Matsoukas's Queen & Slim that depicts Jodie Turner-Smith's Queen having her braids removed — so as to change her appearance and facilitate escape from police detection — by Indya Moore's character. Turner-Smith is just sitting there, but she's also not; as the camera gazes upon her, we see her roiling inner turmoil at her current state of affairs, at having her long braids removed. Queen & Slim offers a master class in this kind of small bigness.
Written by Lena Waithe and directed by Matsoukas, Queen & Slim is a sprawling love story that spans few days, but an entire country, beginning in the shimmering winter of Cleveland, OH, and ending in Miami's heartbreaking brightness. The film opens with Queen, an attorney, and Daniel Kaluuya's Slim in a diner — they're finally on a first date after having matched on Tinder a while back, when Slim sent Queen a message he checked and then spell-checked. As Slim drives Queen home, they get pulled over by a cop; the cop is brutal and Slim shoots him in self-defence. Queen understands the consequences, asks Slim if he wants to become property of the state, which he does not, so they go on the run.
In striking jewel tones — vibrant blues, lush greens, confectionery reds — Matsoukas teaches us not only how to light people of colour on screen, but also how to tell others' stories through small, intimate connections in landscapes that are alive, natural, abundant and not decrepit. On their journey to safety in Cuba, Queen and Slim meet people who want to help them, and hear their tales. Stories are woven throughout, characters come, tell their histories and those of their children, their insecurities and their points of pride, and then they leave. It's almost as though Queen and Slim are conduits through which people whose tales hardly ever get represented are given body and space. This is a very deliberately wrought film; every aspect is as intentional as Slim's first message to Queen was.
The film is about our desire to leave something of ourselves behind through a legacy, whether it be children or a memory; but it's also about feeling safe in love and countenancing what we want of those who love us; and about America's history of police brutality. The couple's first car, which they get pulled over in, is a crisp white Honda, reminiscent of Rodney King's white Hyundai Excel.
Kaluuya and Turner-Smith both excel at the small-bigness. Kaluuya, through hiss eyes and the purse of his lips, conveys wrenching panic or a persuasive invitation to dance. Turner-Smith, in her breakthrough leading role, portrays Queen's wariness and weariness with deft skill.
Universal as it is particular, Queen & Slim is an expertly told story that will make you cry, but it will also make you anxious, hopeful, sad, scared and inspired to act — as a good movie should.