Queen & Slim

11 March 2020 | 3:05 pm | Anthony Carew

"Queen & Slim’s strength, and resonance, comes in the conflict."

When Bokeem Woodbine pronounces Queen & Slim’s titular characters “the modern day Bonnie and Clyde”, he’s speaking the obvious aloud. Melina (Beyoncé’s Formation) Matsoukas’ beautifully photographed debut feature — which moves through surreal-social-realist, Edward Hopper-esque neon/nocturnal wastelands and along sun-scorched highways — sets Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya as a pair of outlaws on the run, road tripping across an equally blighted and beautiful US South as their celebrity grows.

They’re not lovers, at least not initially: in fact, the film opens with them on a Tinder date, making diner-booth small talk, the air between them notably chilly. That thaws as they hit the road and head south, on the lam after shooting a racist cop, in self-defence, at a routine traffic stop. They’re unlikely honeymoon killers: she’s an attorney, he’s a gentle soul. “I’m not a criminal,” Kaluuya exhorts, even with police blood on his hands. “You are now,” Turner-Smith rejoinders; Queen & Slim written —  by Master Of None’s Lena Waithe — in the knowledge white America views Black men as guilty until proven innocent.

Waithe’s episodic, at-times-clunky screenplay makes for a handsomely mounted powderkeg of a film. Within its narrative, the leads become mythical, almost folkloric figures. They are subjects of media hysteria and social media lionising, at once reviled and celebrated; made symbol and talking-point, heroes and villains. Hoping to anonymously escape to their freedom — Cuba or bust — they find that everyone they encounter, on the road along the way, knows who they are, and has an opinion on what they’ve done. Queen & Slim’s strength, and resonance, comes in the conflict and complexity of these conversations; the way their Bonnie and Clyde status is depicted without moral clarity. Of course, complexities be damned, the audience is primed to cheer for their escape, knowing all too well their inevitable blaze-of-glory fate.