Queen & Slim transcends its “black Bonnie & Clyde” trappings

Filmmaker Melina Matsoukas on mashing up genres and taking her sweet time to keep audiences on their toes.

Melina Matsoukas’s Queen & Slim stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as virtual strangers who have one pretty underwhelming Tinder date at a local diner. As they head home in Slim’s car (with the rather tacit understanding that there will be no second date), they’re pulled over by an aggressive, overzealous white cop (Sturgill Simpson) who rapidly escalates the situation. A scuffle ensues and the cop is killed by Slim, forcing the two to go on the run. They seek help from Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) along the way and hide out in motels; after a few days, the incident has gone viral, prompting a groundswell of support for “the black Bonnie & Clyde.”

If you strip Queen & Slim to its very bones, it’s essentially a drive-in movie from the ’70s — a lovers-on-the-lam action movie that could very well have been made by Roger Corman at the time. But there are many more layers to the story Matsoukas and writer Lena Waithe are telling. In a sense it can even be seen as analogous to Get Out in the way it employs obvious genre elements to tell a story of black pain and trauma.

“I was going to ask you what genre you think it is,” says Matsoukas. “I think I’m still trying to figure that out! One of the things that I liked about the script is that it is genre-bending. It’s somewhat of a rom-com that turns into this horror film that turns into a road trip that’s also a love story with sprinkles of comedy. I loved that because I think it’s really honest to the way we walk through life — a really honest portrayal of life experience. Creating it, that was actually something that some people didn’t understand, because it didn’t live in one box. And I couldn’t define it! They wanted to put a label on it so badly. I just felt that it satisfied so much of what I am as a person, and I felt it was this really honest portrayal of how we live. We do walk through all these spaces. I think I was able to use that straddling of genres to tell that story because we didn’t to be defined by anything, and we could really use the socio-economic, racial conflict as a backdrop to this beautiful love story.”

Similarly, Queen & Slim doesn’t really move like a thriller. It breathes even when a threat looms. 

“That was the intention,” says Matsoukas. “There’s a lot to digest, so I wanted it to be languid and poetic. I wanted it to be a meditation — the pacing is what it is intentionally so that you’re able to digest it in layers and take in what’s happening without having to hit a bunch of action points. The other thing I found interesting is that it really defies the norms in the way it doesn’t cut to the police chase. It never shows how close or far the cops are or even the relationships they have to these two people on the run. That was a great challenge to me as a filmmaker that I found really interesting: how do I maintain that tension and that pace if I can’t rely on cutting to it? I have to use music, I have to use colour, I have to use lighting. I have to use the performances, obviously. 

“I found that really intriguing in Lena’s script,” she continues.”It was trying to redefine the traditional ways to tell a story in a Hollywood space. It applies to the pacing, too; that defies traditional Hollywood gimmicks. Here, we’re able to take our time. I’m very much influenced by a lot of foreign films that don’t have these particular standards of how you have to tell a story. I think you can see some of those influences in the way we tell this story. It was really important that we stay with our characters. We get to learn about them as they learn about each other and we’re actually on that journey along with them.”

Another notable aspect of Queen & Slim is the casting, particularly in the supporting parts. Just about the last people I’d expect to see in this movie show up: musicians Sturgill Simpson and Flea, Chloe Sevigny and a sizeable, scene-stealing performance from Bokeem Woodbine all feature prominently. I asked Matsoukas if the idea of using recognizable actors in small, showy parts was a conscious effort on her part.

“It depends on who you ask, if they’re recognizable!” laughs Matsoukas. “I think it’s a combination of me and Lena and our phenomenal casting director Carmen Cuba, who’s extremely inventive in her approach to casting. There’s never anything expected, and I really appreciate that. In terms of Bokeem, that was mine. I only ever saw him as Uncle Earl, never anyone else. I grew up with Bokeem.I remember seeing him in Jason’s Lyric and thinking the character he plays in that would grow up to be Uncle Earl in our film. There really was no other person for me, and he obviously brought so much to this role. It’s unimaginable the length that he took — very much a scene-stealer at times.”

“And then Sturgill Simpson I actually was not familiar with at all,” she continues. “Carmen and I talked about how I wanted someone from the Midwest, but who was progressive with their thinking. She was familiar with him as a performer and knew he was phenomenal and knew about his background. He flew in — he was performing at the Hollywood Bowl — and I started researching his background. I found out that his father was in law enforcement, and it was really important for him to talk about the injustice in that system. He came off the plane — he had just had his third baby — and met with me. The way that he flipped, the way you see it in the film, that was there from his first audition. From cool, calm and contained to aggressive, to see the racism bursting through it… I was just stunned.”

All movies sit with us differently. My first takeaway from Queen & Slim when I watched it was that it perhaps wasn’t angry enough. It doesn’t necessarily have the kind of righteous fury of a Spike Lee film, but talking to Matsoukas, I realized that it didn’t really need it. 

“I think this is obviously a meditation on the black experience and a commentary on systematic racism and the fury that comes with that,” she says. “It’s about the trauma that black people encounter on a daily basis, but it’s also a testament to our resilience. It’s a celebration of us and how we found a way to love and celebrate even in times of struggle. That’s the beauty of it: balance. We don’t live in one world and you can’t let that consume you, otherwise you won’t survive.” ■

Queen & Slim opens in Montreal theatres on Wednesday, Nov. 27. Watch the trailer here: