“Why do black people always have to be excellent? Why can’t we be normal?”
So says Slim in the new film from director Melinda Matsoukas (responsible for videos of music royalty such as Beyoncé, Whitney Houston, Rihanna and Missy Elliott). In Queen & Slim we are treated to a black Bonnie & Clyde, but it’s so much more than that. Here we have a love story, a critique on racial inequalities in America plus a tiny glimpse into the lives of a number of war veterans.
As soon as I saw that Daniel Kaluuya and Lena Thwaite’s names were attached to this feature, I’ve been longing to see it. Thwaite was the writing partner on Master of None and Kaluuya made a splash in the hit film Get Out. While Queen & Slim doesn’t quite gel all the way through – some of the dialogue is clunky and a 20-minute trim would have tightened up the plot – none of this distracts from the project.
We meet Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Kaluuya) in the middle of their first Tinder date. It isn’t going well for her but he seems happy to be out with a beautiful and accomplished woman. The evening takes a sharp turn after a bogus traffic stop where Slim shoots a police officer. Queen takes charge – she knows the law and knows that, as African-Americans, they do not stand a chance. The journey on the run starts off erratically with no plan, each tethered to a person they barely know. We are thrown through their many emotions (shock, guilt, uneasiness, nervousness, panic) and their differences made me wonder how they matched at all. Slim just really, really wants to call his Dad, but Queen coldly destroys their phones, saying they can be used as tracking devices.
Once they decide to head south and escape to Cuba (“Like Assata Shakur”), Slim loosens up and wants to have experiences that he has deprived himself previously such as riding a horse for the first time and even a faux second date dancing with Queen.
The Q&A discussion I attended, chaired by gal-dem’s Kemi Alemoru, touched on the reversal of runaway slaves heading north to freedom. Queen and Slim were heading south and going back in time in the process. I was fascinated by Queen’s Uncle Earl, who certainly deserves a film of his own, an Iraq war veteran who has exiled himself inside his own home. Hiding from the world, haunted by his past and surrounded by the many women who work for and serve him.
The Cop Killers become symbols of the black American resistance, inspiring protests as well as one terrible mindless act of violence. This vision of America is shown in muted colours so you’d be forgiven for thinking it is set in the past. But there’s one scene where the couple see a chain gang of mostly black prisoners carrying out back-breaking work, which is very much the present for some African-Americans. It is only in the final scene, as Moses Sumney serenades us, that we learn the real names of the couple. Only at the end do ordinary African-Americans gain international recognition.
Matsoukas and Thwaite have crafted a visually stunning, well-told story of black love with drama, tension and a few laughs. Though the film will undoubtedly miss out on award nominations for being ‘too black’, the two beautiful leads are unapologetically dark-skinned which is a real rarity for a love story.
My final thoughts go to my super crush, the wonderfully talented Lena Thwaite. If you haven’t watched the Thanksgiving episode of Master of None, what have you doing with your life?