Folk heroes, and the birth of their legends, are a long-standing cinematic favourite. As is the adulation they received in their day – think Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, a look at celebrity culture and sinister fandom but made in those seemingly distant pre-social media days. The couple at the centre of Queen And Slim capture the imagination and the protective hearts of the black population in the Southern states of America and their reputation is built online. But their followers are far from threatening.
The debut from hitherto music video director Melina Matsoukas, and with a script by Lena Waithe, the film follows a familiar path with the story getting off to an inauspicious start. What are the odds? A Tinder date in a very average diner is not going well: the couple don’t get on especially well, despite his efforts, but it all turns dangerous on their way home when their car is stopped by a cop. To coin a much-used GIF, it all escalates quickly: the girl is injured, the cop shot dead and the pair going on the run. Their efforts to escape include a run-in with a local sheriff, a shady car mechanic, a visit to her disreputable uncle who helps them back on the road, a couple who provide them with a near-escape from the cops and the prospect of a plane ready and waiting to take them to Cuba.
Let’s talk about the title, because the obvious assumption is wide of the mark. Up until the end of the film, nobody refers to them by name – and it hardly matters. In an interview with CBS towards the end of last year, Waithe described the film as a form of “protest art”, a way for her to articulate the current black American experience. “I know Nina Simone said it is an artist’s duty to reflect the times,” she’s quoted as saying. “And I believe I’m doing that – I’m reflecting the times in which we live. I believe it’s open season on black bodies.” And that protest extends to the enigmatic title, using the kind of names many of us would regard as typically black American. In truth, it’s irrelevant what their names are – it’s what they represent that’s important.
This is a merger of several familiar genres. A buddy/romance movie, with two people who are thrown together and become closer as events move on. It’s a chase movie and, although we don’t see much of the cops on their tail, we do see the police reports that keep us, and the couple, up to date. They’re always getting closer. It’s a crime movie, with the killing of a cop acting as the catalyst for everything that follows, and there’s the folk hero movie, with the obvious parallels with Bonnie and Clyde. But, although they caught the public imagination in the 30s during the depression, they set out to rob banks and kill people. That’s not the intention here.
All those layers merge to create a story that’s summed up by a familiar movement of recent times, Black Lives Matter. Its no holds barred attitude to challenging the system and the racist attitudes it exemplifies – there are a few exceptions, so it’s not relentlessly bad – hits you smack between the eyes. In 2020, we’d like to think that attitudes like this have at least faded, if not gone away, but we’re being shown that it’s not the case. Hell, we’re left in no doubt about it. And the way the two are treated and their story is the vehicle. The black community wherever they go recognise them: they’ve become a hit on social media, everybody supports them because they represent defiance, rebellion and a determination to be treated in the same way as anybody else. The tragic thing is that they’re not.
So, while the two central characters are essentially symbolic, the combination of Whaite’s writing and the performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith makes them rounded and believable so they carry the movie more than happily on their joint shoulders. Much of the film’s power comes from its ability to shock, to make you laugh and, out of the blue, do a complete about turn and rattle you to your core. All of which adds up to movie that sticks with you, benefits from being chewed over afterwards and, most importantly, makes you question the experiences you see reflected on the screen.
Drama, Romance, Crime, Thriller | Cert: 15 | Entertainment One| UK, 31 January 2020 | Dir. Melina Matsoukas | Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Chloe Sevigney, Flea, Bokeem Woodbine.