Queen & Slim: You Only Die Once, by David Bax
One of the most stirring things about Melina Matsoukas’ powerful feature directing debut Queen & Slim is how little suspension of disbelief its wild story requires. Not that many years ago, a lot of white viewers might have questioned the film’s inciting incident, in which two black people kill a racist, violent police officer in self defense. “Why did the cop get so violent so quickly?” we might have asked, as if his behavior were some sort of convenient plot contrivance. Unfortunately, thanks to increased news coverage of recent events and the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement to not let such things go unseen, many of us–those not practicing willful ignorance–will feel queasy from the moment the squad car’s blue and red lights flare up behind our protagonists. Every black American is one white cop’s decision away from being considered a criminal and treated thus. Queen & Slim is a sly, seething epic that unfolds in a distended version of the space between that decision and the treatment that inevitably follows.
Queen and Slim are not the names of the two main characters but, as those are intentionally withheld, that’s how I’ll refer to the woman and man played by Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya. They’re on their way home from an unsuccessful first date when that cop (Sturgill Simpson) pulls them over. What follows sends them on the run from Cleveland to the Florida Keys while the dash cam footage of the incident makes them simultaneously the most wanted people in America and beloved folk heroes.
Matsoukas made her name in music videos (like, a lot of music videos, including segments of Beyonce’s Lemonade), and then moved on to comedy, helming episodes of Master of None and Insecure. Queen & Slim contains traces of both modes. We’re given time to drink in languid, larger than life imagery occasionally undercut by character-based comedic beats. Many of the latter come from a terrific turn by Bokeem Woodbine, as Queen’s uncle who begrudgingly lets them hide out at his place for a short time.
Queen and Slim don’t stay too long there or anywhere else. Amidst the bellowing challenges to the status quo–co-screenwriter Lena Waithe has referred to it as “protest art”–Queen & Slim takes on recognizable genre forms. Most notably, it’s a “lovers on the run” movie; Woodbine’s Uncle Earl even calls them “the black Bonnie and Clyde.” But, unlike that story or those of Badlands, Gun Crazy, True Romance, etc., Queen and Slim don’t hit the road in the flush of infatuation. Their romance only blossoms hesitantly, catalyzed by the fact that they’re all each other have to rely on.
It probably also helps that they undeniably get cooler as a result of their situation and the abandon it invokes. They start out lame and mismatched. Slim’s idea of a first date location is a local diner, to which Queen arrives with a rigid posture and a turtleneck that almost looks like a straitjacket. They both get new clothes and haircuts as a matter of necessity but it’s no coincidence that their new duds make them look not just like a couple but an immortal, iconographic one.
Indeed, immortality, in the form of legacy, is a major topic of conversation in Queen & Slim. It’s the yin to the movie’s yang of fatalism. The young lovers know how unlikely they are to survive so it’s only fitting for them to ponder in what ways they may live on. Their predicament may be more pronounced and obvious but it’s a metaphor for how it must feel to live in a country where being black means your life always hangs in the balance. Queen & Slim dares to suggest a kind of freedom in that but never lets us forget that a long life lived on one’s own terms is preferable to one violently cut short. Immortality is a mirage. Death is death.