Throughout Queen & Slim individuals frequently refer to Angela “Queen” Johnson (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Ernest “Slim” Hinds (Daniel Kaluuya) as the black Bonnie and Clyde. It clear that this is the vibe screenwriter Lena Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas are striving for with this slickly crafted film. However, unlike the real-life Bonnie and Clyde, or the numerous cinematic clones they have inspired, neither Queen nor Slim get to revel in their infamy.
In fact, they don’t even want to be criminals at all.
Their claim to fame is tied to a tinder first date that goes horribly wrong when they are pulled over by a cop, Officer Reed (Sturgill Simpson). Stopped for failing to signal at a turn and swerving the car, things quickly escalate when Officer Reed pulls his gun on an unarmed Slim. Knowing her rights, as she is a lawyer, Queen asks the officer for his badge number while reaching for her cellphone. Despite telling the officer what she is doing, the trigger-happy Reed shoots Queen in the leg and a scuffle with Slim ensues.
The altercation results in Slim killing the officer with his own gun.
Knowing what is in store for black men who kill cops, Queen suggests that they flee until they can figure out what their next step will be. This sets in motion a cross country journey that will have the pair evading cops, inspiring a community and finding the real meaning of love.
Queen & Slim captures the struggle that comes with living in a world where one’s skin colour is seen as more dangerous than the guns that young white men, take the cashier that Slim encounters at the gas station, feel empowered by. In one of the best moments of the film, where the couple dances together in a black bar, Matsoukas shows that even in the darkness of trauma black people can still create their own ray of sunshine. Even if only for a moment.
The film is filled with little moments like these which are truly great. Whether it is the way she captures the tenderness and beauty of black love, the sexual tension on the dance floor, or the vast American landscape, Matsoukas’ visuals drip with style. It is just as shame that Waithe’s script does not live up to the heroes it attempts to create.
Queen and Slim are opposites, her a non-believer jaded by her job and him a man of faith, who together must also represent the expansive nature of the black experience. However, this experience is always associated with pain. Blackness in America cannot exist without strife, even moments of sexual bliss must be juxtaposed with anger and protest. While history shows that race and struggle are intricately woven, Queen & Slim offers no hope of breaking the chains that keep the cycle going.
It resigns itself to the fact that living while black is dangerous and the best one can do is hope to have someone to remember you after you are gone. At no point do the protagonists even attempt to rectify their circumstances. Running is the only option and when that does not work…run some more. The film has even less faith in activist who are fighting to show that black lives matter, especially in relation to police brutality.
For a film that is bookended by police abuse of power, Queen & Slim’s screenplay goes out of its way to show that not all cops are bad. Something that black people have always known, even when protesting the rotten apples on the force. What makes it so vexing is that it implies that those who protest in the streets have little understanding of the historical and systemic nature of the issue. They are just fame seeking individuals who are happy to see a dirty cop get his comeuppance.
The most egregiously example of this comes when a young teenager, who idolizes the couple, goes to a rally and tries to provoke a well-meaning black cop. Despite the officer trying his best to avoid arresting the kid, the scene culminates in a jarring moment that only helps to perpetuate the Fox News style myth that black activism only promotes violence against cops.
It is also interesting to see that, outside of the bar scene, that the duo are far more trusting of the white and hispanic individuals they encounter, even willing to hand over their lone weapon at one point, than they are of the various black people they meet along the road. Waithe’s script gives good reason for this suspicion. The non-police officer black men they encounter, including Queen’s Iraq vet uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), are dangerous and untrustworthy individuals. Even the old black mechanic trying to make an honest living is met with far more scrutiny than the white and affluent Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd (Flea and Chloë Sevigny).
Whenever Queen & Slim gets close to having meaningful conversations about impact of racism on black lives in America it quickly pivots to its romantic beats. While the sensuality flowing within the film is palpable, Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya display wonderful chemistry together, it is tough to get past the increasingly silly decisions that their characters make throughout. There is no living vicariously through them, even in the fleeting moments of joy.
Unlike Bonnie & Clyde’s titular duo, Natural Born Killers’s Mickey and Mallory, or even True Romance’s Clarence and Alabama, Queen and Slim are not allowed to be badass lovers on the run who tap into America’s fascination with danger and sex. Queen and Slim may rock a fly leopard dress and jumpsuit respectively, but their non-threatening fear lay naked for the world to see.
Matsoukas and Waithe are talented individuals who have shown in the past that they know how to craft engaging stories and characters. However, here they present a scattered portrait of black life that is content with wallowing in the waters of hopelessness.
Queen & Slim wants to be both a gripping love story and a deep meditation of blackness. However, its shallow discourse of black struggle is more infuriating than it is empowering. Queen and Slim are idolized because they simply survived a police encounter that many often do not. It is sad that this is considered the new standard for black heroes.