It’s somewhat egregious that something like Queen & Slim could slip under the cinematic radar. Actually, scratch that – when I say ‘slip under the cinematic radar’, that was directly aimed at Awards Season, that yearly practice where we’re supposed to recognise great films of the year with nominations and golden statues, only for films to disappear from the conversation (most likely hidden in the same vault where the Ark of the Covenant is buried along with Lupita Nyong’o’s award nomination for Us).
But back to my adulation of Melina Matsoukas’s debut feature film; Queen & Slim is an absolute majesty of a film, beautifully layered and diversely rich, powerfully driven in its acting, and poetically symbolic with its visuals. It may not have received the adoring attention that awards seasons typically rewards us with, but its greatest achievement strikes at the heart of cinema itself and the power of its medium. Queen & Slim is both raw and poignant, waxing lyrical on the social complexities of the black experience and entangles it with a compelling love story. As a modern-day cinematic gem, the experience it leaves you with is impossible to ignore.
“Pictures aren’t just about vanity, they’re proof of your existence.” – Queen
It’s not surprising when Bookem Woodbine’s Uncle Earl accurately refers to Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) as Bonnie and Clyde, the notorious criminal couple of the Public Enemy Era of 30s America.
If Netflix turned around and decided to do a True Crime documentary on the infamous pair, it probably will be a national obsession, given how addictive the genre has become. But it’s interesting amongst popular culture at how the notorious couple have transcended to a mythological level. Despite their criminality which involved theft and murder, thanks to interpretations such as Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, there’s no escaping the romanticism of their exploits.
Screen Prism’s brilliant analysis on the 1967 film points to the ‘romance of the outlaw’, an archetype that celebrates the underdog spirit that’s youthful, rebellious and non-conformist. And that becomes a very powerful tool in filmmaking; history can be favourable depending on who’s telling the story, and in Penn’s examination, Bonnie and Clyde become more about what they stand for instead of the real-life (and violent) morality of their actions.
Obviously, there’s more depth to explore; for instance, Bonnie and Clyde becoming an archetypal model that ushered in films like Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise or Terrence Malick’s Badlands (given how our love of ‘the underdog’ is as old as time). Or the celebrity culture behind rebels, outlaws and gangsters which makes their actions notorious, iconic and even legendary, providing ample material for myths to manifest. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise to see a shared commonality between Penn’s film and Melina Matsoukas’s Queen & Slim.
History has a funny way of repeating itself, but their films are born out of a visible discourse. In Penn’s film, it was Hollywood reflecting the social and political changes of the 60s (The Vietnam War, Woodstock, Civil Rights and political assassinations) and the protest endeavours of the youth that rejected the ‘old ways’ of living. Hollywood was in the midst of a transition between the end of the Hays Code to the uber-violence and grittiness that ushered in a new wave of artists and director-led films. Queen & Slim, the modern-day update, has black consciousness running through its veins, delving into Black Lives Matter, Civil Rights, police brutality and a bias media narrative that endlessly criminalises. And just like Hollywood conforming to a new cinematic wave of the 60s, Queen & Slim is another chapter in the Black renaissance, films which have added to the diverse cultural imprint that breaks away from the typically overused narrative of Black criminality or Black subservience.
But where that connection begins to dissipate is how it achieves that underdog narrative. Written by Lena Waithe (Master of None, The Chi, Ready Player One), Queen & Slim is not about the glamorisation. Heck, it’s not even the film version of the Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s music video! Her re-imaging of Bonnie and Clyde is far more complex and provocative. It takes ambitious swings in its socio-political narrative but explores it with a mixture of suspenseful horrors and the beauty of a Trans-America road trip. Its soundtrack has an impeccable taste in generational music and styles, right down to its effective remix of The Pharcyde’s Runnin’ which carries a similar haunting presence as Michael Abel’s take on the Luniz’s I Got 5 On It for Jordan’s Peele’s Us. It’s easy to forget that Queen and Slim’s journey started as a bad Tinder date, filled with differentiating opinions from opposite ends of the black spectrum. Yet, as their relationship evolves, they wrestle with the duality of being reluctant criminals on the run (punished for a mistake) and becoming the symbolic faces of the protest movement.
Re-writing the rules of popular culture is not too dissimilar to what Damon Lindelof recently achieved with Watchmen. The show de-mystified familiar and repetitive superhero tropes that are a staple language in understanding the medium but offset it with an uncompromisingly look at Black culture, incorporating its struggles, its systemic erasure of its history and the generational trauma that is etched throughout the Black community. Just like Queen & Slim, it consciously taps into a real-life subtext. And if audiences found issues acknowledging that, then its episode 4 title is its spirited response – If You Don’t Like My Story, Write Your Own.
Judging by some of the mixed opinions online towards Queen & Slim, the common criticisms cite from ‘it’s too long’, or the scenarios are ‘tiresome’ and ‘unrealistic’, especially with the twists and turns the film finds itself in. I wholeheartedly disagree.
There’s a certain naivety that oversimplifies Queen & Slim’s intentions. No film pretends to be perfect, but by their logic, Matsoukas’s film played with expectations, which feels awfully similar to how Awards Season forgot to nominate Steve McQueen’s Widows. But it’s the assumption there’s a level of fairness that Queen and Slim could have benefited from when the history books (Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland etc.) dictate otherwise. And before you know it, it starts to lean into the familiar line of nitpicking – Why did Queen interfere? Why didn’t Queen use her lawyer credentials and fight the crime through the courts? Why didn’t Slim just co-operate? Why did they run after the cop was shot dead? How can an entire Black community be supportive? Doesn’t it glorify cop-killing?
It’s a discourse that manages to cleanly separate away from the actual argument. And instead of looking inward to acknowledge a notable problem of police brutality and the treatment of African Americans, there’s more reaction at the accusation than examining the context that fuels it. It’s fair game to say that Queen & Slim rebelliously pushes those uncomfortable buttons.
Matsoukas and Waithe never pretend that the conversations are straight-forward (or black and white as the subject matter infers). But it’s brutally honest, self-aware and nuanced enough to acknowledge itself as a reflective vessel, understanding the fears and trauma of Black America that’s embedded within American culture but also provide enough gut-punch material to confront it. You only have to acknowledge that subtlety in one scene where our titular characters drive pass Black prisoners working in the field, and if you’ve seen Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary 13th, the US prison system is just another loophole form of slavery. The powerful images of black subjugation speak volumes, and for African Americans, Queen & Slim’s exploit is deeply unsettling and surreally autobiographical.
Queen & Slim’s ultimate defiance is summed up by how much it dares itself to be different, not only presenting various shades of Black culture, but illustrating how movements born out of tragedy can transform into icons, either giving voice to a new generation or symbolic reminders of the continued plight within the country. It’s not excusing the violence but recognizes how one action can change everything. The film homages are respectfully acknowledged, but Waithe’s writing gives it a fresh impetus by playing with perceived expectations. It goes beyond ‘what would a black version look like’ to make it an entirely new cinematic experience altogether.
And for all its desired input, the payoff works. Despite some elements being a little rough around the edges, there are sincere attempts to be authentic and grounded as possible, which only enhances the incredible and career-defining performances by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith.
Their relationship typifies the ‘romance of the outlaw’ narrative I mentioned previously. It’s not driven by the ‘thrill of the adventure’ that inhabits Arthur Penn’s film, where Bonnie and Clyde’s robberies were a substitute for their lack of sexual consummation. Queen & Slim’s viewpoint is driven by the perception of black people and most profoundly, how we view ourselves – the social and mental barriers that end up becoming personality filters to survive. Kaluuya and Turner-Smith’s performances are genuinely transformative, constructing identifiable pieces where not only you can see yourself (once again iterating the importance of diversity on the big screen) but manages to express an intimate rawness and vulnerability, driven by their deep-rooted fears, social anxieties and the desperate clutch for freedom.
And that’s why the hair scene (arguably one of the film’s best scenes) is so significant. You can compare it to a superhero analogy where they assemble their costume for the first time. It’s finally letting go of the burdening societal weight and embracing empowerment to accept themselves for who they are. And because those barriers gradually slip away, the more accepting Queen and Slim are to each other. The roadside detours offer emotional clarity to their bonding (and showcase how their actions challenge a broader social context). But their conversations can be surprisingly humorous; Waithe’s writing routinely finds opportune moments to inject levity amongst the darkness. As titular characters, they are without a doubt, the heart and soul of this movie.
Director Melina Matsoukas adds a lot of stylistic choices to complement Waithe’s writing, choices which might not be to everyone’s taste as it fluctuates between the jarring and the artistic. Nevertheless, they are ambitiously bold, painting a vivid, gritty and almost dreamlike canvas to convey its ‘what if’ scenario before giving its audience a massive crash course in reality.
Queen & Slim is deliberately unapologetic in its conquest. It’s protest art for the modern age but offers more than just the politics that notably surround it. With Turner-Smith and Kaluuya at the wheel, it is beauty in motion. For a film to surprise and poignantly move you in the manner it does, is merit it fully deserves.
Awards season may have slept on it, but as history has always suggested, sometimes the best films don’t win prizes. The best films are the ones that stick with you. The best films are the ones that still ‘strike up a conversation’, long after you’ve seen it. Queen & Slim is one of those films.