'Queen & Slim' looks a little like 'Bonnie and Clyde' — but love, not violence, is the film's heart

Director Melina Matsoukas is less interested in action than in romance. And that, as it turns out, makes the film both less predictable and more heartbreakingly political.
Image: Queen and Slim
Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in "Queen & Slim."Andre D. Wagner / Universal Pictures
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By Noah Berlatsky

The title of "Queen & Slim," with the two main characters' names front and center, parallels that of other outlaw movie epics like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Thelma & Louise." But "Queen & Slim" director Melina Matsoukas is less interested in action and violence than in love. The criminals-on-the-run tropes are just background for a romantic comedy. The set-up involves criminal resistance to an unjust system, but the rest of the movie is about partners falling for each other. And that, as it turns out, makes the film both less predictable and more heartbreakingly political.

The set-up involves criminal resistance to an unjust system, but the rest of the movie is about partners falling for each other.

The movie starts with the protagonists at a grubby diner on a first date. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) is a defense lawyer whose client was just sentenced to death; depressed and wanting company, she responded to a Tinder message from Slim (Daniel Kaluuya). Slim's a sweet, open guy who loves his dad. Queen is uptight, shut off and mercilessly quick with a put-down — she tells Slim she agreed to go on a date with him because his photo had sad eyes and she felt sorry for him. The two enjoy sparring and flirting, but don't have a ton in common.

Slim is driving Queen home to end the date — and probably their fledgling relationship — when a white police officer pulls him over for failing to signal a turn properly. The police officer escalates the routine traffic stop into a violent confrontation, shooting Queen and choking Slim, who finally manages to kill the officer with his own gun. Panicked and desperate, Queen and Slim flee, while the video of the altercation goes viral. There's a nationwide manhunt, and the duo discover they've become heroic icons of resistance in the African American community.

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If this was a typical outlaw epic, you'd expect the violence to escalate. There should be a scene where Queen or Slim or both discover a talent for shooting and/or hand-to-hand combat. There should be explosions and blood and death, as the two former innocents are forced to make difficult, ugly decisions. They should become hardened; they should do terrible things.

None of that happens though. After the death of the cop, Queen and Slim don't kill anyone. Slim makes a vague effort to hold up a gas station, but he's so obviously not a killer that the white attendant just laughs at him. He bizarrely offers to fill the tank if Slim lets him hold the gun, because he apparently really likes holding guns. Slim, with some embarrassment, agrees, demonstrating that he is in fact a terrible outlaw. The pair elude the cops not because they're bad and dangerous, because most black people they encounter see the police as illegitimate, and refuse to turn them in.

The pair elude the cops not because they're bad and dangerous, because most black people they encounter see the police as illegitimate, and refuse to turn them in.

Rather than relying on shootouts to build tension, "Queen & Slim" follows the romantic comedy plot arc. The two are understandably angry and confused, and they initially bicker and argue. But, in predictable rom-com fashion, they eventually find they like each other a lot more than their first date suggested.

You wouldn't think that criminals on the run would have much time to flirt and banter and fall in love. But Queen and Slim, the filmmakers argue, deserve the opportunity to find romance and even happiness.

At one point Slim pulls off the road to a blues bar and invites Queen to come in with him. She asks him in exasperation if he's willing to risk his life for a dance, and he replies, without hesitation, that he is. It's in part a flirtatious compliment — she's worth dying for. But it's also a refusal to let himself be defined by trauma.

Similarly, Queen tells Slim she's glad that they went on this “journey” together, no matter what happens. What happened to them is terrible, but Queen insists that her existence and her love are important, regardless of what the police do. The romance plot lets them make their existence about joy and silliness and love, not just about violence. "Live your life, sis," as one character tells Queen.

The romantic comedy arc is also a more effective way of ratcheting up tension and suspense than any number of murders could be. Outlaw epics almost invariably end in tragedy; you can't escape the long arm of the law. But romantic comedies are supposed to conclude with marriage, or at least a kiss.

Outlaw epics almost invariably end in tragedy; you can't escape the long arm of the law. But romantic comedies are supposed to conclude with marriage, or at least a kiss.

By layering the two narratives on top of each other, Matsoukas makes it unusually difficult to figure out where the movie is heading. You root for the romantic comedy to win, but can't tell if it will or won't. Racism and injustice aren't treated as a backdrop for action and violent genre pleasures. Instead, they're an interruption, which threatens to derail the satisfying happily ever after the characters, and the audience, deserve.

One of the central moments of the film is the steamy first sex scene between Queen and Slim. Matsoukas, best known as a music video director, uses quick cuts to juxtapose the romantic consummation with scenes of a protest. Queen and Slim make love, while somewhere else, in the streets, black people chant "Let them go!" and the police menacingly advance amid clouds of tear gas.

The juxtaposition is jarring in part because the two scenes fit together so well. Protest is a kind of love; love, in the face of dehumanization and oppression, is a kind of protest. "Queen and Slim," is a political film because Matsoukas knows that the language of romance can be one particularly vivid way to say that black lives matter.