‘Queen & Slim’: An exhibition of protest art

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Grade: 4.0/5.0 

“Queen & Slim” could easily incite misconstructions and practical criticisms, but that’s its mission: to invite the audience members to dissect the film’s plot pragmatically and leave them confused, arguing about the characters’ unrealistic actions. Lena Waithe, in her feature film debut as a screenwriter, teamed up with director Melina Matsoukas to demonstrate her storytelling capabilities in “Queen & Slim” — and sometimes, the constraints of realism need to be removed in order to deliver one’s message. Waithe isn’t concerned with the destination of the film’s characters, but she is committed to guiding viewers through the sobering and austere journey of two human beings, crafting an exhibition of their experiences.  

The epidemic of police brutality is the memo here. Its existence is brought to full force when Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) and Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith), after a failed Tinder date, are driving home and suddenly pulled over by a white police officer. The officer shoots Queen in the thigh and Slim fires back, killing the white cop — authoritative abuse arises and consequently, self-defense is enacted. Queen and Slim run for their lives. 

While escaping, Queen and Slim diverge from the desperateness of the circumstances, as well as the haunting thoughts of being caught as fugitives. They enjoy a simple meal at McDonald’s, ride bravely on horses, laugh with their heads stuck out of the car window, dance unburdened and filled with spirit, and make love. Here’s where audiences might halt and hesitate, misjudging the intention and purpose of these scenes. These moments are meant to be surreal and insensible precisely because they are real in the film’s world. Police brutality and racism shouldn’t exist, yet they do, erasing the possibilities for these experiences for victims in the world today. 

Pushing audiences back and forth through the thin dividers of the surreal and the real, “Queen & Slim” glides between the humanization and dehumanization of its lead characters. Queen wears a tiger print dress that blends luminously with the jungle wall as she sways uncomfortably in a nightclub, a key moment in which she attempts to live freely while also being pursued by the authorities. Slim and Queen both shave and braid their hair in an attempt to be unrecognizable, transforming into unknown figures in the world. 

An ethereal and unique film, “Queen & Slim” stands alone in terms of tonality, posturing itself within the delicate undercurrent of being while also pulling the capricious strings of destiny. This effect comes forth only through the richness in the different mediums of storytelling. Devonté Hynes’ musical compositions subtly feed the film’s ambiance, filling it with a meditative and dreamy attribute. Waithe’s wistful and yearning dialogue acutely carves out ideas and characters. The cinematography by Tat Radcliffe places viewers as witnesses or bystanders in the ruckus. Background noises are muffled and muted, accentuating every human sound and experience in isolation. 

Despite these pulsating qualities, “Queen & Slim” isn’t one to keep audiences on their feet. In the last act of the film, Queen and Slim’s ongoing escapade drags on, trying to resolve little loops in its plot but at the expense of eliciting a desire for one final resolution. It builds and builds until it arrives at a startling conclusion, one that consecrates a final representation of a visual motif consistent throughout the film: that of faith and sacrifice.  

Questions and representations of faith are placed throughout the film, from crosses on the dashboard of the cars that the characters drive to the language that they use to contemplate their futures. Is the film challenging the existence of God in a time of suffering? What is this story of sacrifice and what position are Queen and Slim given? These are issues left for deliberation, and will surely stay with viewers after they leave the theater. 

Queen and Slim’s real names are not revealed until the end of the film, which is also crucial to the film’s messages of movement and solidarity. Names aren’t needed to understand a victim’s story, but the names of victims are only known when tragedy strikes. Not knowing a person’s name doesn’t detract from their identity as a human, but names do create a sense of existence. With the release of “Queen & Slim,” it is clear that Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas are names to remember. The film is a spectacular first blockbuster for each — hopefully, the exhibition continues.

Contact Cameron Opartkiettikul at [email protected].