Maybe all America needs is just a good solid road movie. There are sharp divides in our nation, sure, but you can still cross those state lines in a really cool car or an impressive piece of junk. Better yet, you can tag along with Queen & Slim, a lush lovers-on-the-run odyssey. There’s a familiar tragedy in Ohio, a makeover in New Orleans, the dream of blue Atlantic horizons. Sometimes the long ride takes a wrong turn, or spends awhile in cruise control. And yet this haphazard film is a ride, a romantic provocation torn between cultural strife and individual striving.
Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya star. Let’s call them Queen and Slim, though it’s awhile before anyone says their names aloud. And in the first scene they could be anybody, just a couple people on a first Tinder date. The script by Lena Waithe quickly sketches in their two different worlds. She’s a frowning lawyer with fashion sense. He’s an unshaven smiler who mumbles a silent prayer before eating. Dinner doesn’t go well. It’s not a fancy restaurant — though, he notes with pride, it’s “black-owned.” They don’t have much in common. She’s got no family, and he won’t stop talking about his dad. His license plate says TRUSTGOD, and she looks ever-so-embarrassed when he says grace. They’re both African-American, but that doesn’t mean he’s getting a second date.
The world spirals, suddenly and irrevocably. They get pulled over on the drive home. Slim “failed to execute a turn signal” says the white policeman (Sturgill Simpson). The whole interaction simmers with justifiable tension, and then explodes into violence. The opening credits haven’t rolled yet, and the characters are already on the run for killing a policeman. Queen & Slim will shade complexity into its political parable. It’s clear-eyed about their hopeless situation, though, two young black people pulled over on a cold night. They don’t pull out the gun. Hell, they don’t even have a gun — so they don’t shoot first, either.
This is the first film directed by Melina Matsoukas, who previously helmed a famously biographical Master of None standalone written by Waithe, plus several fine episodes of HBO’s splendid friend-com Insecure. Matsoukas is also the eye-popping music video auteur behind Beyoncé’s Formation. Some combination of those far-flung credits captures the attempted sweep on display here: Headlines ripped into blistering pop confetti, stylish romance swooning through downbeat farce.
Initially, Queen & Slim has an old-fashioned B quality, piling on the twists, pushing the duo into precarious situations. They run out of gas, and get picked up by a guy in a truck… who is, uh-oh, a Kentucky sheriff! By morning, every radio, television screen, and newspaper front page features their faces, and the dashcam video from the dead cop’s car has gone viral. “Are you all the new Black Panthers?” one guy asks them — with a tone of admiration, even after they accidentally run him over.
New Orleans offers a place of refuge, Queen promises Slim. Her Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) runs an extremely colorful house of ill repute, where they can cut their hair, try on some new clothes, and roll toward someplace brighter in a Turquoise Catalina. The stated plan is to hide in plain sight, though at this point the couple mostly stops trying to hide, and Queen & Slim gives up on being the kind of funny-freaky thriller where people get accidentally run over.
Instead, the drive carries the couple through a series of dreamy interludes. Some sequences are fascinating. There’s a surreal moment when Slim tries to rob a gas station, and the nerdy white clerk (Colby Boothman) promises a full tank of gas for just one minute holding the gun. Other times, the tangents trend on the nose, or overly expositional. By the time Chloë Sevigny and Flea show up as two righteous suburban allies, you really feel a tight 90-minute feature stretching past two meandering hours. (Meanwhile, Indya Moore is way underutilized as a sex worker in Earl’s employ — and hey, can’t we find the Pose performer, like, a rom-com?)
There’s grace in the wandering, though. Kaluuya’s such a wonderful actor, and his Slim could almost be the hero in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, a sweetly approachable guy trapped in a paranoid nightmare. This this particular nightmare is a national one, of course, steeped in racial tension. Kaluuya lets Slim find an odd liberation in his desperation. In a make-or-break scene, he basically tells Queen they have to chill out and dance. Turner-Smith has the trickier role, in a character arc that’s mostly internal. The actress gave great deadpan badass in Syfy’s ludicrous Nightflyers, but she has to carry some of the most stilted and theme-y lines here.
Sometimes, though, Queen and Slim get to just hang out. They debate Skinny Luther or Fat Luther. They listen to music, and I treasure the movie’s old-fashioned just-let-the-radio-play soundtrack. Their conversation turns searching and thoughtful. “Why do black people always feel the need to be excellent?” Slim might ask. Honestly, in this year of bad sequels and limp reboots, I forgot how it felt to watch a Hollywood movie where characters think about more than just their own plot.
Matsoukas evokes the shifting landscape around them, all back country roads and waterfront sunsets. Waithe’s screenplay investigates the characters and their country. “It’s beautiful out here,” Slim says at one point. Queen looks out the window — and sees a crew of black convicts laboring under the gun. “Is it?” she asks. So you see what I’m talking about with the theme-y lines, and the movie turns its title characters into explicit symbols, with protests launched in their name. There’s a showstopping sequence that crosscuts between the personal and political narratives in a way that’s hard to describe without reaching for the sweatiest scene from Steven Spielberg’s Munich. That set-piece is Queen & Slim in full: violent and sexy, balanced between hope and despair, definably too-much and unapologetically mythic. The road is bumpy, but what a trip. B