Queen & Slim may be the best—and is almost certainly the Blackest—film of 2019. One of the most striking things about the movie is that it’s intentionally absent of the white gaze. The directorial debut of Melina Matsoukas (of Master of None and “Formation” fame), it’s also the first film-length screenplay written by Lena Waithe, who knocked bestselling author James Frey’s original story idea out of the park after also making the jump from acting and writing on TV (Master of None and The Chi).
In Waithe’s recent interview circuit on shows like The Breakfast Club, The Daily Show, and Sway's Universe, she calls Queen & Slim “a meditation on Blackness,” and explains that a bunch of production companies were pursuing her and Matsoukas to get the ball rolling, desperately sending them gifts because they knew Queen & Slim would have a big impact.
One of their requirements for signing on with Universal was an ample budget and a guarantee that Matsoukas and Waithe would have say over the final cut—a choice Waithe says was to ensure the film wasn’t influenced whatsoever by the white gaze. They only did one test screening, with an all-Black audience; the result is a new American romance/drama written in the Black American language, told via a fully Black lens, and including a diverse array of characters who show that Black people are not a monolith. For 48 hours after seeing this movie, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The trailer for Queen & Slim—in which one man says “Well, if it isn’t the Black Bonnie and Clyde”—could lead one to believe this movie is another lazy attempt to remake an old story (but make it Black!). But that comparison isn’t accurate at all. Unlike Bonnie and Clyde, Queen and Slim (Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya) are ordinary law-abiding citizens who, after an okay Tinder date, get pulled over by a racist cop who decides to create a life-or-death altercation over a missed turn signal.
While Queen, a licensed attorney, has a more confrontational “Malcolm X” response to the officer’s aggressive demeanor, Slim embodies MLK’s turn the other cheek approach—but not enough to offset Queen's behavior. After the unreasonably angry cop escalates the situation, unnecessarily searches the car, and shoots Queen in the leg, Slim ends up grabbing the cop's gun and killing the officer in self-defense. The two decide they have no choice but to evade law enforcement to survive.
My first thought at this point was: Don’t they know about the cop’s dash cam that undoubtedly filmed this entire incident!? Right then, the movie answered my query: The dash camera footage is released to the public and goes viral, and the two are labeled “cop killers,” becoming celebrities overnight—making their on-the-run road trip across the country all the more stressful and riveting.
From the film’s start, we get the feeling that this won’t end well, but it’s their epic journey and and the growing relationship—between two people who probably wouldn’t have gone on a second date—that instantly becomes a thrill to watch. They may not have liked each other when the film began, but the longer they drive, the more they see the humanity in each other, fall in love, and shape the rest of their lives together.
Queen & Slim is perhaps most poignant for its gorgeous, complex, and multifaceted portrayal of the Black experience, where sparks of joy and love exist alongside pain, struggle, and oppression. While there are definitely triggering parts (I cried twice), I also laughed a lot and, like many of the film’s characters, I genuinely enjoyed rooting for the criminalized, on-the-run protagonists.
On top of all the beautiful shots and engaging storytelling, the film is also just flat-out entertaining: Everything out of Uncle Earl’s (Bokeem Woodbine) mouth was hilarious; the soundtrack is excellent as it deepens the impact of the pair’s road trip from Cleveland to Savannah and New Orleans as they try to make their way to Cuba, where they hope to find political asylum (similar to Assata Shakur's journey); and after the perfect amount of build-up, Queen & Slim delivers the hottest sex scene I’ve seen in a quite a while, with it quickly becoming apparent how rare it is to see two dark-skinned bodies make love like this on screen.
Even though Queen and Slim spend the entirety of the film on the run and oppressed for simply trying to survive a traffic stop, Black unity is one of the film’s most notable driving forces. The two lean on favors from family, friends of family, and perfect strangers (mostly Black, but there are a couple white ones) who help them get a little bit further on their journey.
Even when it comes to the Black characters who aren’t on their “side,” or who may disagree with Queen and Slim’s choices, almost all of them still have respect for the no-snitching code, or at the very least stay out of the couple’s way. I loved seeing this film with the Black man that I love, in a theater filled with other Black people; it felt appropriate to experience another layer of Black unity in our shared reactions to the film’s plethora of emotionally charged twists and turns.
While this film was absolutely made by and for Black people, non-Black folk will also enjoy (and likely be mesmerized by) Queen & Slim’s unfiltered storytelling of the modern Black American experience. The movie’s got a sharp focus on the critical choices Black people must make: stand up to authority or survive; kill or be killed; surrender to an unjust system or leave the only home you’ve ever known; live free or die. The film’s creators do not shy away from addressing America’s current reality of police brutality and the fact that the criminal justice system is designed to punish and enslave people of color.
At the film’s heart are powerful, too-true themes about Black people’s constant search for freedom, even in modern society. In Queen and Slim’s case, their entire trip together is a relentless quest for freedom, and they have a really good run until the bitter—and iconic—end.