So many of the crimes we see splashed across the nightly news in this country raise a question: What are the motivations of the people involved? And Queen & Slim gets right into the heart of the matter. No more than seven minutes into the film, after an incredibly blah first date at a diner, a black man (Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out) and woman (Jodie Turner-Smith, making her feature film debut) are driving home in Cleveland (because, obviously) when they're pulled over by a white cop (singer Sturgill Simpson).
The situation goes from ugly to worse almost immediately, and it ends with the cop dead on the ground, the woman with a bullet through her leg and the non-couple deciding they need to get out of town stat.
Dashcam video footage of the incident is soon released and as the manhunt for the pair on the run reaches greater heights, people across the country begin to see them as folk heroes, when really, all they wanted to do was go home. They try to explain to those along their journey that it was all self defense, they weren't trying to make a statement. No one wants to hear that though. Things have been boiling over for too long.
The script, written by Lena Waithe (Master of None, The Chi) from a story she wrote with James Frey (of the infamous A Million Little Pieces "memoir," and who is from Cleveland), is a mishmash of high-octane tension, slow lyricism and, thankfully, some comedy. And while the outlaws are referred to once as the "black Bonnie and Clyde" in the film, the story isn't the same.
The pair — we'll call them Queen and Slim even though their names are never spoken in the movie — travel through this glorious country toward New Orleans, where Queen's pimp uncle lives in a sweet-ass century home with a few beautiful prostitutes. Here we learn more of Queen's back story, about her first client fresh out of law school and how her mother is dead. Despite the respite, the bickering pair must soon hit the road once again.
Eventually, through close proximity and a general wearing down — Queen admits there would never have been a second date — love comes slowly and in a real way. A scene in a Bayou blues joint, with barely any dialogue, shows the nerves and beauty of a first dance with both wanting to impress one another.
Still, not everything works in this movie helmed by Melina Matsoukas (of Beyoncé's Formation music video). It's too long, some of the dialogue editing feels off and the juxtaposition of a graphic sex scene with a truly upsetting riot feels misplaced. But when our two leads are firing on all cylinders, playing off of one another like a well-oiled machine, the film sizzles.
Queen & Slim ends how you know it must, in the way a movie of this kind was always going to: powerful and sad. Even without that element of surprise, movie-goers will leave the theaters with a hell of a lot to mull over. It's far more than a piece of entertainment. (In theaters) Grade: B+