The issue of police discrimination against the African American community is not a new phenomenon in 21st century cinema. Just last year, The Hate U Give was a well-received, if a little muted addition to the canon which also includes critically acclaimed hits such as Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. It’s an issue ripe for moviemaking: current, provocative and socially resonant within a contemporary context. Queen and Slim, the feature length directorial debut from Melina Matsoukas (Grammy Award winning music video director of Beyonce’s Formation) is arguably the most impressive film to tackle the subject to date. It’s a punchy yet emotional drama, beautiful both visually and thematically.
Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith star as a young black couple on a first date, one that while relatively successful will most likely not end in plans for a second. But when a white police officer’s attempts to pull them over result in Kaluuya accidentally killing him (not a spoiler, it’s literally the premise of the film), the couple must go on the run, resulting in a national manhunt.
The set-up itself is interesting, and the first act’s inciting incident is some of the most tense filmmaking of the year, but what follows is where the movie really shines. What could have become a simplistic thriller starring the “black Bonnie and Clyde” as Bokeem Woodbine’s Uncle Earl labels them is much more of a fever-dream like romance, with wider social commentaries becoming much more of a surrounding ripple than the core story. That’s not to say that the script never tackles the ramifications of its premise, but it takes a relative backseat, becoming only more prominent as the film progresses. In one truly standout scene, Matsoukas cuts between a love scene and a violent riot from black citizens, protesting the treatment of the two leads. The personal is interspersed with national, allowing room for both intimacy and social commentary.
That intimacy is vital for the relationship between the two characters that Lena Waithe hones in on, and this paves the way for the best romance story in the last year. What begins as an awkward date becomes a movie couple worth remembering, as their journey across the country forces them to connect with each other through shared trauma and experience. It’s beautiful, uplifting and overall, any film which celebrates black romance in such a respectful and thorough way deserves all the plaudits.
The chemistry between the two leads is magnetic. We all knew Kaluuya was a talent after his star turn in Get Out but the true find here is Turner-Smith. As the lonely attorney, she shines as an woman astute enough to acknowledge that the justice system is pitted against them, thus making their decision to go on the run the most logical. But Waithe never portrays Turner-Smith’s heroine as superior to Kaluuya’s. Whilst she is consistently more sophisticated (referrals to the noise he makes while eating are notable examples) they are equals, who grow to depend on, and even love each other. “Thank you for this journey”, Turner-Smith muses as the film enters its final act, thus bringing the personal nature of the film into focus and firmly centring the relationship between two new lovers as the main take away.
The visual beauty of the film also does a lot of heavy lifting. As a story, it’s one that focuses on the power of images and iconography. A particularly exquisite image (one not too unlike the poster above) becomes a symbol of the movement that springs from their crime, and Matsoukas along with DP Tat Radcliffe prioritise a rich and colourful palette in order to ingrain certain images within the minds of the audience. It’s a film that prioritises memory , and utilises image to contribute to its own stylistic legacy. Radcliffe is definitely a cinematographer to watch, and it’s a shame she’s received no recognition this awards season. In fact, everything on display here is among the best of recent films, and its lack of attention from critical bodies is disappointing to say the least. Hopefully, this film can go on to find a bigger audience as it rolls out through on the ancillary market, as it’s something begging to be seen and discussed.
9/10: An exquisite film, expertly written, directed and acted. Queen and Slim is the movie to beat when it comes to documenting police brutality against the African American Community while also managing to be one of the best romances in recent memory.