Action, rated R, 132 minutes, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
“I’m an excellent lawyer,” Queen says to Slim, at a time in their brief acquaintance when legal skills seem both urgently needed and wholly irrelevant.
Slim is not impressed. “Why do black people always have to be excellent?” he asks. “Why can’t we just be normal?” The question has a special poignancy at the moment he asks it. Before everything went haywire, he and Queen were in the middle of a perfectly, depressingly normal evening.
Queen & Slim, the debut feature by music-video and television virtuoso Melina Matsoukas (written by Lena Waithe), starts out as a restrained comedy of romantic disappointment. The title pair — played by British actors Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya — are in a diner after connecting on a dating app, and the lack of chemistry is palpable. It’s a cold night in Cleveland, and a second date is unlikely.
A lethal encounter with an aggressive white police officer (country singer Sturgill Simpson) changes everything. The non-couple turn into fugitives, and Queen & Slim becomes an outlaw romance. Hailed in the film as “the black Bonnie and Clyde,” Queen and Slim evoke other storied movie duos too, like Butch and Sundance and Thelma and Louise. In the course of their flight they become folk heroes. They also fall in love.
“I’m not a criminal,” Slim protests, early in the journey. The world wants him to be either a paragon or a pariah, denying his individuality, his specific dreams and desires. That’s the beautiful, terrible paradox of this movie: Only as its heroes are driven to extremes of desperation, courage, and resilience do they experience passions and pleasures that might have been part of ordinary life.
Queen & Slim is full of violence and danger, but it isn’t a hectic, plot-driven caper. Its mood is dreamy, sometimes almost languorous, at least as invested in the aesthetics of life on the run as it is in the politics of black lives.
The car they use belongs to Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), who lives in New Orleans in a polyamorous arrangement that might also be a moneymaking operation. An Iraq War veteran with a complicated past, he is one of a handful of vivid characters we meet along the way. Dashcam images of what happened in Ohio have gone viral, stripping Queen and Slim of anonymity and turning every encounter into a tense guessing game. Will this person help us out? Turn us in? Rip us off?
The film fumbles some of its big gestures and over-italicizes a few statements. What lingers, though, are strains of anger, ardor, sorrow, and sweetness, and the quiet astonishment of witnessing the birth of a legend. This movie feels like something new, and also as if it’s been around forever, waiting for its moment.