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Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith star in Queen & Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas.

Universal Pictures/Universal Pictures / E1

  • Queen & Slim
  • Directed by Melina Matsoukas
  • Written by Lena Waithe
  • Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith and Bokeem Woodbine
  • Classification R
  • 132 minutes

rating

“So what happens tonight?” That’s a question asked early in Melina Matsoukas’s feature debut Queen & Slim, and it’s a question that viewers will likely want to provide a million different answers for other than what actually happens in the film’s opening minutes. Not because the drama takes a wrong turn – only that what transpires is so upsetting, and not in a hard-to-imagine way either, that any other scenario would be easier to take.

What happens tonight, then, is instead an extraordinarily disturbing incident of policy brutality that should spark all manner of fury and anger, but not necessarily shock. After a tepid first date at an Ohio diner, a lawyer named Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and a man named Slim (Daniel Kaluuya), whose profession we never find out much about, are pulled over by a white police officer. The reasons are dubious, the cop is itching for a confrontation, and the young not-quite-couple know exactly how wrong this situation can go for men and women of colour. Seconds later, Queen has a bullet in her leg, Slim has shot and killed the cop and the two have decided to go on the run.

Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas on Queen & Slim: ‘Being black is beautiful, but it’s also traumatizing’

New in theatres this week: The gripping The Two Popes, thoughtful Honey Boy and thrilling Dark Waters

Kaluuya is given room to both charm and break down in one of the film's lead roles.

Universal Pictures/Universal Pictures / E1

To where, and to what end, it isn’t clear. But Queen and Slim’s destination – as is often the case in films more concerned with character and the evocation of feeling, rather than a plot that makes A-to-B sense – is of no real concern. Not to be obviously overwrought, but it is the journey that matters, and it is the journey that makes Matsoukas’s film such a captivating and stirring work.

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Key to this are Turner-Smith and Kaluuya, who together own almost all of the film’s screen time. The latter has been a known quantity for some time, possessing a firm grip on your attention no matter what is demanded of him, from his villain in last year’s Widows to his nearly doomed hero in Get Out. Here, music-video master Matsoukas (Beyonce’s Formation, Rihanna’s We Found Love) allows her leading man to charm and to break down, and he does both with the smooth ease of a performer almost supernaturally familiar with burying himself inside another’s skin.

Jodie Turner-Smith is excellent in a challenging role.

Universal Pictures/Universal Pictures / E1

The relative newcomer Turner-Smith, though, is tasked with a more challenging role. At the beginning of the film, she is a world-weary skeptic, reluctant to let anyone into her life lest she have to face the inevitable disappointment of alienating them. Now bound to a near-stranger by violence, she must shed her isolation for something resembling trust. The moment the two come together and embrace their shared reality is a freeing, almost glorious moment – the first love scene in some time where the passion feels earned, the intimate physicality sincere.

Toward the middle of Queen & Slim, one character – Queen’s New Orleans uncle, played by Bokeem Woodbine with a distinct itchiness, as if he hasn’t slept in years – jokingly greets our leads as “the black Bonnie and Clyde.” And indeed, much of the film’s marketing has leaned on that easy-to-digest comparison. But Lena Waithe’s screenplay, improbably adapted from a story by fabulist James Frey, is not a neat little narrative to be packaged and sold. It balances the passion of the lovers-on-the-run genre with the defiance of political resistance. For any person of colour living in the Western world, it may strike an unbearable chord. For anyone else, it underlines just how deeply our system has been designed to explicitly oppress.

That’s not to say that Waithe and Matsoukas don’t take a handful of shortcuts when it suits. There are at least three moments in the story that rely on extreme narrative conveniences, while Matsoukas can, in brief flashes, appear to substitute intense lighting for a more complete aesthetic. But these are small detours. Queen & Slim’s ultimate route is a powerful one – a drive meant to be shared, and discussed, long after the road ends.

Queen & Slim opens Nov. 27

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