Movie review: Queen and Slim

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

All of us come to a point in our lives where a decision is made, often a bad one, where life is never even remotely the same again.

In his recently-released book, Sharks in the Time of Saviours, Kawai Strong Washburn captures with poetic truthfulness what it is like in the aftermath of these kinds of pivotal decisions.

“‘Whenever I’ve made a choice in my life, a real choice … I can always feel the change, after I choose. The better versions of myself, moving just out of reach.'”

For Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) the decision made and its aftermath possess exactly the same kind of existential afterwash but in a way that is violently abrupt that life changes beyond all recognition in the blink of an eye.

Or in their case, in the split-second amount of time it takes a bullet to travel from the gun Slim has just grabbed off an abusive, clearly racist police officer to the man in question who is hit full force in the chest, dying instantly as he falls onto a snow street in a city in Ohio.

In that cataclysmically transformative moment, the lives of lagubrious, easygoing Slim, with his heart for social justice and doing good where he can, and Queen, a lawyer who fights for those who have fallen victim to the justice system’s inherently unjust ways, who have just met on a Tinder date are changed, irrevocably forever.

It is shocking, it is sudden, a heartbeat of a moment in which a self-defensive move by Slim – the officer was reacting in excess of the “crime” of forgetting to use a turn signal – takes a simple night of getting to know someone new at a diner over dinner and gives it an altogether more malevolent tone and hue.

The tragedy of it all is that the kind of brutality and out-of-all-proportion treatment that Slim particularly but also Queen too whose leg is grazed by a bullet in the melee, is nothing new for members of the black community in the U.S. and indeed anyone who is not white and comfortably middle class.

By any yardstick, American society is inherently unfair and heavily weighted to the fast-disappearing white majority, and it is this unjustness that forms the centrepiece of the narrative in Queen & Slim.

All too aware they will be pinpointed as the ones at fault, and that no one in law enforcement circles will think for a second that the white officer would be the guilty party, they make a split second decision – well, Queen does and Slim follows, too in shock to think clearly for himself – to run and run fast.

They hightail out of the city, Slim away from his close knit family and his laidback happy life, and Queen from her career and her lonely glasses of wine alone at night, and onto a future in which there is no easy roadmap, few, if any palatable options and a host of things that could go tragically, horribly wrong.

For all of that dramatic portent, Queen & Slim is in many ways a gorgeously slow-moving work of considerable art and emotional resonance, that examines the weighty issues of racism and attendant injustice through the six days and five nights that Queen and Slim journey from Ohio to Florida from where they hope to make an escape to Cuba.

Deep down, both of them know this is just a pipe dream, one that is opposed by so many grave and insurmountable obstacles that it isn’t worth even considering but these two young black people, like all of us, hold on to hope, even when it is near transparent because without it what is the point of going on?

They do go on and on the road come across the very best and the occasional worst of humanity, cheered on by many black people who see them as freedom fighters against a system weighted against them in almost every respect.

It is intensely, quietly moving to watch how Queen and Slim come to mean so much to so many people – in their world, there is no question that the police officer is the one with blood on his hands – but also to see how they come to mean so much to each other.

What starts as a date one night with Slim cautiously eager and Queen self-protectively remote and almost dismissive becomes an intimately close relationship forged in the fire of life on the run, a love story that is brought to transcendent, exquisitely heartfelt and real life through stellar performances by Turner-Smith and Kaluuya who invest so much into their evocations of this doomed twosome that you ache with the beauty and loss f it all.

Queen & Slim is in many both Shakespearian and Southern Gothic, but in quietly, nuanced ways that place the relationship of the two protagonists firmly against the backdrop of a racially-divided broken America that has the ability to divine right and wrong and see only through the calloused eyes of bigotry and prejudice.

It is a lot of narrative ground to cover but by taking things down to the intensely personal journey of Queen and Slim, and the small acts of support and kindness they are shown by family, friends and strangers, screenplay writer and director Melina Matsoukas bring the many issues encompassed by the film to vivid life and sharp relief in ways that a more bombastic, earnest film might never have achieved.

This is a movie that is very much big dramatic issues in s small but far from inconsequential vehicle and it affects you in ways so profound that sitting in the dark thoughtfully as the credits roll and epilogues are told is about the only reasonable and possible course of action.

You keep thinking and feeling for a considerable period of time afterwards, not simply because grave justice in writ large on the screen in front of you, and writ large so effectively that it can’t help but impact you, but because these two people, who deserve so much and gain so much over the course of their time as perversely accidental fugitives, should have gotten so much more from life than then eventually do.

Queen & Slim is a masterpiece, an engrossing, hard to watch at times (because it is so viscerally, affectingly real) and yet intensely mesmerisingly beautiful film that takes its own gloriously immersive time telling a tale of love, resistance, racism, rampant injustice, loss and hope for freedom and a future that is, both characters know in their heart of hearts, beyond reach but which cannot and should not be let go if life is to keep any meaning at all for them and for many of the people in the broken society in which they live.

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