FILM REVIEW: Queen & Slim

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Official Trailer “Queen & Slim,” directed by Melina Matsoukas.

It’s lyrical. Like an extended poem with waves of emotion, heady rumination, love proclamations and lost souls gathering around a common issue.

Some will recollect the true-life story of Bonnie and Clyde, but they gained fame for crimes and robbing banks. A closer comparison is Thelma & Louise, two feminist icons who were pushed into rebellion. Yet their story never involved an intimacy between the two that included sexual attraction and love.

Queen & Slim is on its own path. Groundbreaking for its rich, layered storytelling (Lena Waithe, Emmy-winner TV’s Master of None), stylish direction (Melina Matsoukas, Grammy-winner Best Music Video Beyoncè: Formation), provocative contemplations on race and police abuse and two performances that will redefine how black men and women are portrayed on screen.

They meet at a diner in nowhere Ohio. She, Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith TV’s Jett), is an aloof and exacting criminal defense lawyer, with braids down her back and a disposition more sour than a lemon. He, Slim (Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out), a salesclerk, is her polar opposite. Congenial, funny, sardonic sloppy. He chews his food with his mouth open, making noises that could wake the dead. It annoys her. He’s completely oblivious. Fate didn’t bring these disparate souls together. Blame it on Tinder.

Driving home from their rendezvous, a siren flares, red and white lights flash and his porcelain-colored Honda Accord is pulled over by a very white and overly aggressive cop (Sturgill Simpson, Grammy-winner Best Country Album “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”). The car is searched. Nothing is found.

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(from left) Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) in “Queen & Slim,” directed by Melina Matsoukas.

It’s as if the police officer is extra pissed because he can’t find drugs or alcohol. His anger grows. Slim is calm. Queen, as attorneys can be, is indignant. The situation escalates. A gun is drawn, and shots are fired. Queen and Slim go on the lam, driving down endless highways, trying to escape. He’s not sure what to do. She: “Keep running until we come up with a better plan.”

In the first five minutes the tension between the two draws you in. Contrary personalities, yet common cultural threads. Conversations about the movie Love Jones and other Black pop knowledge banter set their personae: They are hip, smart, modern African Americans. People you may have known in college, on your 9-5, from a dinner party… They’ve got urbane exteriors. Underneath they are scarred and vulnerable. You want to watch them court and spark. You want them to survive.

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Bokeem Woodbine as Uncle Earl in “Queen & Slim,” directed by Melina Matsoukas.

This is the mark of brainy, sensitive and socially aware screenwriting that will likely propel Lena Waithe from TV gigs to steady feature film work. Her mixed bag of indelible characters include: an ex-con uncle (Bokeem Woodbine, Jason’s Lyric); the con’s ladyfriend (Indya Moore, TV’s Pose); a good-willed sheriff (Benito Martinez, TV’s 13 Reasons Why); and a war vet (Flea, bassist for The Red Hot Chili Peppers).

Police aggression in the black community ignites a journey that’s laced with intrigue, thrills, narrow escapes, family drama and a romance that goes from highly unlikely to sensual bliss. All of it keeps viewers guessing what’s next—right until the end. For good measure, provocative dialogue expresses the characters’ subjective attitudes. Queen: “Nothing scares a white man more than a black man on a horse.” Slim: “Why?” Queen: “Because they have to look up to them.”