Queen & Slim review: a languid affair for two fugitive lovers

Melina Matsoukas directs Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as a couple whose bond deepens as they run from the law in this slow-burn romantic thriller scripted by Lena Waithe.

Philip Concannon

Jodie Turner-Smith as Angela aka ‘Queen’

Jodie Turner-Smith as Angela aka ‘Queen’

One of the best scenes in Queen & Slim takes place in a bar in Georgia. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) are a young couple on the run, having killed a policeman in self-defence. This bar offers them some respite, allowing them to drink, dance and momentarily forget their perilous situation, and it is entirely populated and owned by black people. “Don’t worry,” the proprietor tells Slim, handing him drinks on the house. “You’re safe here.”

Themes of trust, betrayal and community are central to Queen & Slim. First-time screenwriter Lena Waithe (working from an original idea by, incongruously, James Frey) consciously evokes the Underground Railroad through the network that offers refuge and assistance to the two fugitives. Queen and Slim are largely viewed as heroes among the African-American community for their actions – one gives them the black-power salute on meeting them, and a teenager tells them they’ll be immortal – but Waithe complicates this sense of allegiance by having black men criticise and betray them, while a prosperous white couple becomes a key part of their support network.

Waithe sometimes struggles to insert this wider social context organically, and the decision to crosscut between a protest and Queen and Slim’s lovemaking is a very unfortunate one. The film doesn’t quite work as a thriller, either. The plotting is heavily dependent on illogical and unconvincing behaviour, and despite the fact that we’re following a couple of cop killers running for their lives, the conspicuous lack of police presence for most of the film saps it of danger and urgency. After the gut-wrenching tension of the first 20 minutes, director Melina Matsoukas (best known for her music videos and, like Waithe, making her feature debut here) favours a languid, meandering, romantic style. She gives us plenty of time to appreciate Tat Radcliffe’s rich and textured 35mm cinematography, and to sit in the car with Queen and Slim, getting to know them as they get to know each other.

Matsoukas is smart to take that approach, because the central love story is where Queen & Slim really works. Kaluuya and Turner-Smith share a genuine chemistry and watching them chart the changing nature of this relationship, shifting from mutual annoyance to complete devotion, is ultimately a moving experience. The one thing we don’t learn about them is where the nicknames Queen and Slim come from; only a late news report reveals their real identities, but I suppose Angela & Ernest doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

 

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