“Queen & Slim” opens in a Cleveland diner where a man and a woman are on their first date after meeting on Tinder, and it’s not going well. As he drives her home, you know that this is a couple that’s unlikely to see each other again — until the lights of a police car appear in the back window. Seeing two African-Americans in the car, the cop is immediately suspicious and antagonistic, and things go from bad to worse. Before the encounter is over, the officer has shot the woman in the leg, and the man has knocked him, gotten control of his gun, and killed the cop.
They stand there, stunned by how quickly things escalated and got out of control, trying to figure out what to do next. He wants to turn himself in, but she — a defense attorney — tells him that any self-defense claim would fail and he’d spend the rest of his life in prison. When he wants to call his father, she warns him not to risk making dad an accessory. With no other options, they opt to drive away and go on the run, and now the adventure at the heart of “Queen & Slim” begins.
They decide to try to get to New Orleans, where her Uncle Earl might be able to help. They stay off the interstates, driving back roads as they grow to know each other and form a real bond. Meanwhile, the dashcam video from the officer’s car has gone viral. While the media report that authorities have labelled the duo armed and dangerous, they find that many of the black people they encounter view them as heroes.
As the leads, Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out” and “Black Panther”) and Jodie Turner-Smith (in her feature film debut, most recently on the Cinemax series “Jett”) are outstanding as their relationship develops, their chemistry improves, and they wing their way through dicey situations. Bokeem Woodbine (so great on the second season of FX’s “Fargo”) almost steals the show as Uncle Earl, who assists the fugitives due to an old family obligation. Sturgill Simpson is perfectly detestable as the cop who pulls them over and ends up dead, while Chloë Sevigny and Flea show up in the last half-hour, too.
Throughout, Lena Waithe’s script (based on a story by James Frey) crackles with tension and has much to say about the fear so many African-Americans have about any interaction with the police, knowing that even the smallest infraction could end in death. “Queen & Slim” marks an impressive feature-film debut for her, as well as director Melina Matsoukas, who delicately balances the fleeing couple’s stress with softer moments of mutual dependence and romance. One scene in particular — in a blues bar down south — is beautifully lit and shot, as the duo find themselves surrounded by support, allowing them to lower their guard long enough to truly connect with each other.
Because it’s about two people on the run, I’ve seen “Queen & Slim” compared to “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Thelma and Louise,” but a much better cinematic analogy would be the similarly-themed “The Hate U Give,” which made my Best Movies Of 2018 list (my review is here). Like that film, this one is socially conscious and vibrant, yet moving and disturbing.
I give “Queen & Slim” an 8 out of 10.