It’s always particularly exciting to watch a film and witness the breakthrough of a new and exciting talent. While nobody can predict the future, particularly in an industry as random and chaotic as Hollywood, there are times when you watch a work and immediately understand that you are going to be seeing a lot more of a particular individual on the big screen in the years to come.
This kind of special surety certainly isn’t common, but that’s part of what makes Queen & Slim a particularly notable piece of cinema. Rare as it is for a movie to feature a single breakthrough contributor, this is one that actually has three – with director Melina Matsoukas, screenwriter Lena Waithe, and co-star Jodie Turner-Smith now being three names that you should get used to hearing as they become classified as “household” in the aftermath of the film’s release.
Along with co-star Daniel Kaluuya (who had his own stunning breakout about three years ago with the release of Jordan Peele’s Get Out), the core team behind Queen & Slim has crafted one of the best crime features in recent memory. It packs a story that is both thrilling and powerfully relevant, features stunning cinematography, and is brought to life with two phenomenal performances from actors bringing to life characters who are fully ready to become iconic.
Written by Lena Waithe (her first feature film script), it begins with the simplest of circumstances, as two unnamed characters identified by the title as Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) have what is really a bad first date in an Ohio diner – with the former really only having dinner with the latter because she had a stressful day at work and picked him out on a dating app. The awkwardness is palpable as it’s made abundantly clear that there is no immediate spark between them.
On the ride home they are prepared to never see each other again, but fate intervenes in horrific fashion when a set of red and blue lights atop the car behind them start flashing. What initiates as a threatening encounter quickly escalates into a violent and lethal one, and Queen and Slim recognize that while their car ride began with the two of them being on totally different wavelengths, their circumstances have made it so that their futures are now entirely interwoven.
It’s understood that their lives are essentially over, and that they must leave everything behind, including Slim’s family, in order to escape – with their only avenue being the help of Queen’s indebted uncle who lives in New Orleans. Together they head south, working out their plan and finding their way around a wide variety of both literal and metaphorical roadblocks along the way.
Queen & Slim is a thoroughly modern crime epic that has something to say.
If the names “Bonnie” and “Clyde” are floating into your head right now, that’s entirely understandable – though it should be noted that Queen & Slim very much stands apart from that classic and has its own story to tell through the lens of the black experience in America. As you can likely guess, the most obvious subject matter is the deeply rooted prejudice that exists in the nation’s criminal justice system, but Lena Waithe also finds ways to explore themes of faith, forgiveness, unity, and love.
The plot takes on a fascinating structure, as while there is the overarching story of Queen and Slim’s evasion of the law, the journey has a wonderful episodic quality to it that consistently mixes things up and introduces exciting and intriguing conflict. Whether it’s running out of gas, trying to get supplies at a convenience store, stealing a boat, or simply trying to relieve a bit of tension with a night out dancing, each section of the film elegantly and thrillingly adds to the bigger picture, and adds to the relationship between the leads.
Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith have all the makings of an iconic duo in Queen & Slim.
Engaging as the crime story is, the bonus that comes with Queen & Slim is that the romance is just as compelling as the danger. Individually the protagonists are dynamic and fascinating – with Queen possessing a powerful take charge energy, and Slim personifying earnestness and subtle strength – and together their journey is remarkable as the nature of their relationship evolves considerably.
Being in every scene either separately or as a pair, Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith are really assigned the task of carrying the narrative, and they deliver in monumental fashion. This is the first time that Kaluuya has played a lead role since Get Out, having given two excellent supporting turns in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and Steve McQueen’s Widows, and once again he proves himself to be one of the most adept performers around. This is a role that requires both real sweetness and extreme pain, and the work is tremendous here.
Daniel Kaluuya grabs attention with his proven talent, but Jodie Turner-Smith is a revelation in Queen & Slim. As an extension of her character, she commands the screen in every moment with an assertiveness that is mesmerizing (while at the same time her banter back and forth with Kaluuya is fantastic and adds a great levity to the film). The actress has been working in the industry for a few years now, with recurring roles on television shows and small parts in features, but this turn should force a lot of people to take notice of her abilities.
After Queen & Slim, you’ll want to keep a very close eye on the talent of Melina Matsoukas.
Like Jodie Turner-Smith, Melina Matsoukas is not really lacking in the experience department, having spent years making music videos with artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna, as well as episodes of shows like Insecure and Master Of None – but Queen & Slim is her first venture into the feature realm, and it’s a spectacular debut. Her collaboration with cinematographer Tat Radcliffe yields some beautiful and shocking imagery, and even when the action is confined to the inside of a car the filmmaker finds a way to add to the mise-en-scène, whether it’s in intimate close-ups, or through creative riggings.
Queen & Slim is exciting not just as a remarkable filmmaking effort, culminating as one of the best of the year, but also because of what it potentially means for the future. There is brilliant fresh talent all over the place in this movie, and should they continue to get to do work like this, there are many great works ahead of us.
Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.