“Queen & Slim” is a heartbreaking masterpiece

Photo by Andre D. Wagner with Universal Pictures

TMN film critic Gordon McPherson gives “Queen & Slim” five out of five raised fists.

A memorial for black Americans gunned down by police on a seemingly regular basis. A tribute to the kindness of strangers in unlikely circumstances. A passionate love story between two individuals victimized by authority figures. A harsh reminder of how heroism is steeped in moral ambiguity. 

“Queen & Slim” is all of these and more, solidifying itself as an intensely relevant meditation on the times we live in — and one of the absolute best films of 2019 so far. 

The film begins with a mismatched Tinder date gone horribly awry. Slim, played by Daniel Kaluuya, is a calm, collected everyman who works at Costco. Queen, played by Jodie Turner-Smith in her feature film debut, is a criminal defense lawyer who recently lost a client to the death penalty. On their drive back from an awkward first date, they are pulled over by an aggressive, downright racist cop. While Slim initially complies with the cop’s unnecessary demands, the situation quickly escalates, leading to Slim shooting the cop in self-defense. The rest of the film follows Queen and Slim as they navigate the repercussions of the incident, fleeing from Ohio to the Deep South and into the hearts and minds of people across the world.

Directed by Melina Matsoukas and written by Lena Waithe of “Master of None” fame, “Queen & Slim” left me deeply affected by the end credits. The film is a true emotional rollercoaster, containing heart, humor, suspense, tragedy and thought-provoking themes tying everything together. In other words, the film is deeply, unquestionably human — an absolutely essential watch.

Queen and Slim are full-bodied characters, each processing their situation in different ways but eventually finding solace in each other. As their situation becomes more dire, their bond with each other strengthens. 

Matsoukas and Waithe perfectly depict Queen and Slim’s unlikely romance. They infuse the film with cerebral, lyrical qualities that, at times, give the central duo a transcendent, spiritual aura.

The film refuses to paint them as clear-cut heroes, however, showing how their actions both inspire and harm those they encounter.

Everyone Queen and Slim meet along the way, including a volatile but kind-hearted war veteran played by Bokeem Woodbine, has a choice to make regarding whether or not to help them. More often than not, these individuals choose to help, guided by their morals rather than societal constructs of right and wrong.

The film expertly veers between elation and nail-biting suspense from beginning to end, illustrating the heartbreaking situation at the center of their romance.

Indeed, while the film opts for a more surreal approach when developing the central romance — by extension letting viewers feel as Queen and Slim do — several violent sequences bring those hopeful emotions crashing down into cold, hard reality. These stressful encounters often left me shaken, as I cared for Queen and Slim as real people, not mere characters in a film. 

Turner-Smith and Kaluuya obviously give extraordinary performances, infusing their characters with an authenticity that seeps off the screen into viewers’ souls.

Brilliantly, the film never shies away from moral and emotional complexity to be more “entertaining” for general audiences.

Contemporary America is a dangerous place, brutalized by injustice within its law enforcement and criminal justice system. “Queen & Slim” is a masterful call for change.