‘Queen & Slim’ Film Review: Lovers on the Lam Saga Reflects a Racially Divided America

AFI 2019: Melina Matsoukas’ directorial debut throbs with cultural specificity as it portrays two unlikely folk heroes

Queen & Slim Jodie Turner-Smith Daniel Kaluuya
Campbell Addy/Universal Pictures

In an era where people of color seem to be considered guilty until proven innocent, and the best outcome for them in an encounter with police is just plain surviving, “Queen & Slim” is nothing less than the radical reclaiming of a familiar narrative.

Melina Matsoukas’ feature directorial debut not only reframes a “Bonnie & Clyde”-style outlaws-on-the-run story in thrillingly contemporary, culturally relevant terms, but it also finds a way to do so that combines bracing honesty about a hostile world with lyrical beauty about the relationships that make it endurable.

Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith are mesmerizing and urgently sexy as the eponymous pair, while a script by Lena Waithe (from a story by Waithe and “A Million Little Pieces” author James Frey) elegantly juxtaposes romantic fantasy, inescapable reality and the legacies — inherited and aspirational — that bond them together.

Kaluuya and Turner-Smith (“Lemon”) play Ernest Hinds and Angela Johnson, a pair of Tinder users matched up for an awkward dinner on a cold Cincinnati night. The date gets interrupted when a police officer pulls Ernest over for a traffic violation while driving her home, and the situation quickly escalates: Angela’s wounded, the cop is killed, and the entire incident is captured on a dashcam.

Feeling like they’re without options, they race away in his car, hoping to put some distance between themselves and the crime. But even as they decide upon a reluctant destination — the New Orleans home of Angela’s uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) — news has already reached the media, turning an accidental shooting into the first stop on a national crime spree for two “lovers” who are barely only friends.

Forced to cooperate — and to commit additional crimes — in order to survive, Ernest and Angela slowly get to know one another, bonded in their isolation while the outside world calls them murderers in newspapers and television broadcasts. But even as the authorities close in on them and the stakes of their survival grow increasingly dire, the shooting reignites a public debate about the police treatment of black people, turning Ernest and Angela into folk heroes as cities erupt in violent protests on their behalf.

With no one else to turn to, Ernest and Angela decide that fleeing the country is their only option, and the duo soon discovers that the national movement their actions have spawned just might be the key to freedom — if they can evade the cops long enough to get away safely.

Like “Badlands,” “The Sugarland Express,” “Thelma & Louise” and Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” itself, “Queen & Slim” aspires to transform and exploit the conventions of this classic narrative trope for its own purposes — in this case, as languid, doomed-lovers wish fulfillment for black audiences and an indictment of a legal system (and cultural climate) that makes it impossible for people of color to seek, or to receive, justice.

The opening scenes that set their cross-country adventure in motion are altogether too familiar, featuring an overzealous cop unfairly targeting two black people who have committed no crimes, and they create an automatic identification with Ernest and Angela’s plight. What else can they do in the wake of an accidental shooting but flee for their lives? Even if it takes a decidedly more melodramatic path, the movie puts audiences squarely in their shoes, encouraging our sympathies even as we reckon, like they actively do, with what could have been done to avoid tragedy.

The script by Waithe utilizes the ambiguity of their choices to force the audience to evaluate them: Should Ernest have asked the cop to hurry up? Should Angela have questioned his right to search Ernest’s car? The answer, the movie suggests, is that it was all wrong, starting with the traffic stop, and the principle of standing up to an authority figure or even asking for a half-measure of consideration, respect or kindness is ultimately moot when an interaction involves an egregious and systemic imbalance of power, a historic pattern of brutality, and a gun involved to maintain the status quo.

At the same time, the movie utilizes that cultural scaffolding to showcase how difficult it is for black men and women to navigate and take charge of their lives and their identities, but also how essential it is to do so when every action burnishes or reiterates a preconception or stereotype to the outside world.

In “Queen & Slim,” Angela is a proud atheist who later leads a dinner-table prayer, an advocate for principle forced to yield to practicality, a turtlenecked attorney who spends half the movie in a skintight dress poached from one of her uncle’s prostitutes. Ernest is an understated retail employee fearful, and yet hopeful, of the better angels of even a racist cop’s nature, who not only discovers the depths of his naïvété but also the well of strength, courage and faith waiting at the bottom of it.

Uncle Earl, a pimp and perpetrator of violence, offers assistance initially only under duress, but in acknowledging a longstanding debt to Angela rediscovers and rekindles family connections he thought were lost, or abandoned, long ago. And in one devastating sequence, a young man (Jahi Di’Allo Winston, “The Dead Don’t Die”) inspired by their flight from the law discovers the true weight and consequences of violence when he comes face to face with an authority figure he rhetorically considers an enemy.

All of this is to say that “Queen & Slim” is convincingly and unapologetically multidimensional in its portrayal of its characters; as our perception of them shifts from one scene to the next, we realize they’re not ciphers for communities, cultures, arguments or belief systems, but individuals wrestling with who they are and how they present themselves to the world.

Kaluuya captures the character’s growth with the same reliable quietude he brought to “Get Out” and “Widows,” this time in service of a role earnestly romantic and transformative. Turner-Smith, meanwhile, sloughs off lifetimes of her character’s personal trauma to expose the vulnerability of a fierce, compulsively honest young woman who doesn’t yet realize that her instincts for self-protection have become obstacles from making meaningful connections.

Using Waithe and Frey’s script as a backbone, Matsoukas turns Ernest and Angela’s run from the law into a soulful travelogue, and an inventory of each of their lives — histories exhumed, intertwined, and pushed forward in desperate acts of self-actualization. But the fact that the rhythms of anger, fear, forgiveness and reconciliation feel recognizable in spite of the cultural specificity of watching two black characters do this is less a sign of storytelling formula, even when it tosses off a handful of scenes you’d swear could only happen in a movie, than the filmmakers transcending it to tap into something more real.

“Queen & Slim” truly epitomizes the notion that the more specific a story is, the more universally relatable it becomes, and the film joins the proud lineage of its artful, revelatory predecessors while forging new storytelling and thematic ground. Ernest and Angela’s fates are sad and beautiful, inevitable and self-determined, tragic and deeply hopeful. And like the names by which they come to be known by the public, they’re intertwined with details so authentic and irresistible that they don’t have to be exactly right in order for the stuff that we take away from the experience to be thought-provoking, profound and deeply affecting.