Melina Matsoukas’ Queen & Slim, released in UK cinemas on January 31, seems almost made for going viral. Centred around the aftermath of violent encounter between a white police officer and an African American couple, it offers a perfect storm of allegoric fantasy and contemporary political relevance that captures the absurdity of America’s criminal justice system in the 21st century.
While many critics have hailed it the Bonnie & Clyde of the Black Lives Matter era, the film exceeds such a superficial celebration of outlaws, instead questioning the very prejudices that tie blackness to criminality in a nation of mass incarceration and unpunished state violence.
While tackling important social issues, the film isn’t without its detractors. In the US, it’s garnered controversy among viewers critical of its glamorisation of racist violence and the suffering of its protagonists. Likewise, many have been ambivalent towards the film’s ending, which – without spoilers – questions the very possibility of ever escaping the corruption and violence of the legal system.
Whichever side you agree with, such responses solidify the film’s significant addition to the ongoing public debates around police violence, legitimate protest, and media representation – a contribution empowered by its support of minority filmmaking led by its director and screenwriter.
Queen & Slim succeeds on the charisma and chemistry of its leads, Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya – the latter of whom viewers will recognise from headline-grabbing roles in Get Out and Black Panther.
Unnamed throughout the film, we know them only as the titular Queen and Slim, names emblematic of their gradual mythologisation as they travel a postmodern form of Underground Railroad to flee persecution.
Their sensitive portrayals of the fear, rage, and, increasingly, resilience towards their situation – being victims of institutional white supremacy – reinforce how their characters embody issues bigger than themselves, confronting viewers with the kind of recognisably multifaceted lives subsumed into headlines.
The film maintains a critical distance towards their martyrdom and the use of violence as a form of resistance, however, neither condemning nor celebrating it, but attending to the increasing divisions along racial lines that perpetuate the polarization of terrorist and freedom fighter.
It’s a film that powerfully questions how being black in America today comes burdened with expectations – society’s impulse to label you a criminal, and the opposing pressure to excel and exemplify ‘black excellence’ to prove racists wrong. As Kaluuya’s character asks of their superhero status in the film, ‘why can’t we just be us?’.
Indeed, Lena Waithe’s script circles around an extraordinary plot, but its power lies in its consistent celebration of moments of normality between the titular couple: dancing in a bar, or the sensation of the breeze as they speed on the highway.
Queen & Slim is ultimately a humanist story that happens to be informed by racial politics, seeking to circumvent the representation of African Americans as mere statistics of violence and injustice, and critiquing the desire to confine them into politicised roles that fundamentally strip them of their individuality.
Beautifully crafted from its cinematography to its score, it remains an overpowering experience regardless of your stance on its message – and a film that will sustain debates for years to come.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia Commons