Home » At the Multiplex » Queen and Slim

Queen and Slim

You probably didn’t see The Hate U Give or Blindspotting last year. And that’s a damn shame because the both of them were easily the most powerful, modern, thought-provoking films about institutional racism to come out in the past several years. They both excelled for multiple reasons, but it’s worth noting that the both of them deal heavily with police brutality, with a specific focus on traffic stops gone horribly wrong.

It’s a tragic and deeply uncomfortable truth that too many people of color have been gunned down by police for little reason if any, and the offending cops typically face little in the way of consequence. It’s a horrifying world in which black people can be executed without trial for something as inoffensive as selling loose cigarettes. In the absolute worst-case scenario, a racist — he wouldn’t even need a badge, as George Zimmerman proved! — could straight-up murder a black person for no reason at all and let the lawyers make up some justification after the fact.

Yes, cops are overworked and burned out, dealing with a stressful, complex, and highly important job. They’re doing exceedingly dangerous work and they need a system to protect them. Moreover, it makes perfect sense that cops would stand up for each other, especially when nobody else will. The problem is that the system that keeps good and honest officers safe is the same system that protects violent bullies with no business carrying a badge or a gun.

When cops gun down innocent civilians, and the system protects corrupt officers against the people they’re sworn to protect and serve, what can we do? When people of color are far and away more likely to be arrested or outright killed just for drawing the attention of a police officer, who or what are they supposed to turn to if justice needs serving?

This is where we are, folks. This is where the bar has to be set. This is what racism looks like in America today. This is the system that directly targets people of color, disenfranchising them, enslaving them, and even outright killing them. If a movie is going to try and talk about racism without talking about it in these terms, it’s nothing more than useless pandering.

And I haven’t even gotten to the movie yet. Rent a U-Haul and order some pizza, folks — we’ve got a lot to unpack here.

Queen and Slim tells the story of Angela Johnson and Earnest Hines, respectively played by Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya. I don’t recall if they’re ever actually called “Queen” or “Slim” at any point in the story — in fact, I don’t think they’re mentioned by name at all until the last few minutes — but let’s call them Queen and Slim for simplicity’s sake.

Anyway, Queen is a defense attorney whose client just got sentenced to execution. Naturally quite upset, she decides to vent by going on a random Tinder date with Slim. Things are going okay until Slim starts driving Queen home and the both of them are pulled over on some minor technicality.

The transparently racist white cop (played by Sturgill Simpson) escalates a minor swerve to a missed traffic signal, then to a suspected DUI, then goes rooting around looking for illicit substances until he finds some errant comment as an excuse to pull a gun, then comes the excessive force… it’s all exactly as we’ve seen on the news far too many tragic times. In fact, we eventually learn that this same officer previously got acquitted after gunning down a totally different innocent black person in an unrelated incident.

But here’s the twist: Slim doesn’t die. Neither does Queen, in fact. Instead, Slim was lucky enough to get the officer’s gun and shoot him in self-defense, killing him instantly. So now Queen and Slim are both fugitives from the law, forced to run throughout the country without phones or credit cards in search of safe harbor.

Obviously, we’ve got white people who’ve branded our protagonists as hardened bloodthirsty murderers, ditto for law enforcement officers of every stripe at every level of government. But of course we also have people of every color who think that the cop killing was totally justified. Yet the movie doesn’t stop there.

We see people who don’t know or don’t care about the ongoing manhunt, but they’re very interested in saving their own skin and/or getting the bounty. We also see cops of every color who are sick of the corruption in their ranks, and willing to look the other way. We see black people who think that Queen and Slim should’ve kept their heads down and taken their lumps from that cop. On the extreme other end of the spectrum, we’ve got the revolutionaries looking for any excuse to pick a fight with crooked cops, using Queen and Slim as rallying figures.

It’s a matter of escalation. Cops get away with murdering black people, so other racist cops figure they can get away with it too. So what happens when black people get away with murdering cops? And what will the cops do about it when they’re already paranoid and racially prejudiced as it is?

There’s an especially powerful moment involving a black police officer (played by Lucky Johnson) placed in mortal peril, and it’s pretty clear he only wants to do his job and go home. In that moment, he wasn’t really all that different from Queen and Slim themselves: Decent and well-meaning people swept up by circumstance and painted in broad strokes by society at large. In the case of the police officer, he got caught up in the image of law enforcement as this monolithic terror maintaining the white capitalist patriarchal status quo at the point of a gun (ie. “All Cops Are Bastards”). In the case of Queen and Slim, they got caught up in their greater cultural image as folk heroes who fought the unjust law and won to run away from greater injustice. In both cases, there’s an inherent humanity that’s lost.

Tales and iconography are prominent in the film. They give us something to believe in, and something to aspire to. Yet they also do a grave disservice to their subjects by elevating them into something larger than life — flawless and pure as no human ever is. Yet these stories, these pictures of us are all that’s left of us after we’re dead, and so many don’t even get that much.

Lin-Manuel Miranda famously wrote that nobody has any control who lives, who dies, and who tells whose story. This movie goes a step further and asks who — or what — really does get to make those decisions. Is it God, fate, destiny, or something else? Why was it the cop who died that night, and not Queen or Slim? Why do these unassuming and unremarkable people get nationwide infamy and their story told everywhere?

Alas, the same questions could be asked of Trayvon Martin, Stephon Clark, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and too many others. Such are the times we live in.

Yet while the movie is focused on death, there’s a lot of life to this movie as well. The filmmakers aren’t afraid to take detours to show the characters having fun and trying something new together. These scenes don’t really add anything to the plot, yet there’s always an underlying tension by virtue of the fact that they’re on the run and wasting time they don’t have. Then again, when either or both of them could die at any minute, what better time to cut loose and live a little? Hell, it’s almost like an act of defiance, to enjoy life without fear for even a minute while the Powers That Be want them cowering afraid in the shadows. It’s love and laughter that make life worth living, and they ain’t dead yet.

It’s also worth noting that their most reliable sympathizers are black people, and they’re most likely to be spotted on freeways and heavily populated areas. As a direct result, the film works beautifully as a celebration of African-American culture, businesses, and neighborhoods that don’t typically get a lot of love or attention in mainstream media. That said, one unfortunate example includes Queen’s uncle (Earl, played by Bokeem Woodbine), a pimp with his own posse of hookers (the primary ones are played by Indya Moore and Melanie Halfkenny). I’ve certainly seen worse depictions of sex workers, but it still grated me to see legitimate black-owned restaurants and auto shops depicted alongside a pimp who treats his workers as property. (His words, not mine.)

That said, Bokeem Woodbine has charisma to burn, and he’s playing this role for all it’s worth. The same cannot be said for Chloe Sevigny — she’s given so little to do and she’s putting in so little effort, I have to wonder why she showed up at all. I was, however, shocked to learn that her husband was played by Flea — I never would’ve recognized him!

We’ve got all manner of other supporting players stepping in and out of the movie, but of course this show is all about Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya. The both of them are sensational, bringing heavily dynamic performances with sizzling chemistry. I never got tired of watching the both of them work off each other, playing strangers so different that they shouldn’t stand each other — and often don’t — and yet complement each other perfectly.

Kudos are also due to Melina Matsoukas, a prominent music video director who recently made the jump to TV and here makes her feature debut. She crafted a good-looking movie here, with nicely immersive hand-held camerawork and some inspired editing choices. My personal favorite example is the race riot intercut with the sex scene — that was a bold choice and it works surprisingly well. We also get a fair bit of voiceover, delivered in a way that makes more emotional sense than literal sense — I’m sincerely glad that Moonlight primed the pump for that kind of effect.

Queen and Slim is everything you could hope a race-centric movie to be. It’s timely and bold, it’s heartrending and intelligent, it’s angry and incendiary without losing track of hope. It goes to a lot of places precious few other filmmakers would dare, and uses the premise as a springboard to talk about more universal and existential topics.

On top of all that, it’s superbly acted and beautifully shot, with inspired editing choices. This is often a tough film to watch, but definitely not one to miss.

Leave a Reply