Queen & Slim

Queen & Slim is the year's most tender love story, as well as a potent social issue drama. I was not expecting it to affect me as much as it did. Music video director Melina Matsoukas makes her feature debut here. Usually when someone moves from music videos into film, they're overly concerned with providing a flashy visual style. Matsoukas blessedly remains focused on story and character, and she avoids attention-getting stylistic choices in favor of mood-setting. Lena Waithe's insightful screenplay gives her a lot to work with.

Think about the most awkward first date you've ever been on. The movie depicts one that will outdo it. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya) met on Tinder. She's a lawyer, he works at Costco. We meet them as they sit in an Ohio diner, nervously making conversation. Doesn't seem like this date is going to lead anywhere.

On the drive home, a cop pulls them over and racially profiles Slim, insisting on searching the trunk of his car for drugs that aren't there. The situation turns ugly and Slim ends up shooting the cop in self-defense. He wants to go to the authorities to explain what happened, but Queen convinces him they should run. The couple makes a brief pit stop at the home of her uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) before deciding the only way to escape is to get to Florida, then hop a plane to Cuba.

Queen & Slim has an interesting social angle. Dashcam video of the incident with the cop goes viral, turning the couple into folk heroes at the same time that they're fugitives. This allows the film to explore the issue of racial profiling by police. Rather than going the usual didactic route, though, the story comes at it from a slightly different perspective, in that we see how the people Queen and Slim encounter view them. For example, during their trek, they risk getting caught in order to go dancing at a black-owned honky tonk bar in the South, only to realize that no one in the place has any intention of ratting them out.

Through this sequence and others similar to it, the movie is able to comment on the weariness many in the African-American community feel toward law enforcement in the wake of so many notable racial profiling incidents. Queen & Slim is by no means a “cops are bad” story – there's a very good cop shown at one point -- although it's definitely an “our suspicions are justified” story.

All of that serves to add depth and weight to the real focus of the film, namely the relationship between the two leads. Queen & Slim is primarily about people falling in love during an incredibly stressful situation. Early scenes suggest these two individuals have little in common. Their shared crisis forces them to reveal more of themselves to each other a lot faster than they normally would, causing a tight bond to form. Waithe's screenplay develops both Slim and Queen fully, so we want to see them escape and be together. We tense up every time something threatens to tear them apart.

The actors are nothing less than phenomenal. Daniel Kaluuya gives Slim a soft-spoken, sensitive core. Slim, in a moment of personal revelation, tells Queen that he's perfected the art of saying he's okay when he's really not. Kaluuya takes that idea and runs with it, suggesting that Slim is far more terrified than he lets on but is being stoic to protect this intriguing woman he suddenly finds himself inextricably attached to.

Jodie Turner-Smith, meanwhile, imbues Queen with a fragility that reveals itself over time. On some level, as an educated attorney, she's got her act together. There is, however, a hidden pain inside that she confesses in one powerhouse scene. She shares amazing chemistry with Kaluuya, too. As Uncle Earl, Bokeem Woodbine proves a scene-stealer. The character has a house full of hookers and a closet full of tacky sweatsuits, yet he greatly confounds the “pimp” cliché with his actions.

Queen & Slim is a great romance that makes us care passionately about the couple at the center of the story. Recurrent threats to their freedom are suspenseful because we understand how much these two are falling in love, and therefore also understand just how much stands to be lost.

out of four

Queen & Slim is rated R for violence, some strong sexuality, nudity, pervasive language, and brief drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 12 minutes.