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‘Queen & Slim’: Accidental outlaws flee the law on a road trip rich with insight

Duo go from first date to fugitives in a powerful statement — and compelling story — from Chicago screenwriter Lena Waithe.

Daniel Kaluuya as Slim and Jodie Turner-Smith as Queen in the film “Queen & Slim,” directed by Melina Matsoukas.
The first date of a Costco worker (Daniel Kaluuya, left) and a lawyer (Jodie Turner-Smith) goes horribly wrong in “Queen & Slim.”
Universal Pictures

Every time I see an article on “Queen & Slim” calling it “the black Bonnie and Clyde,” I wonder:

In what way?

Yes, even a character in the movie says, “Well if it isn’t the black Bonnie & Clyde,” to the title characters, but he’s JOKING.

If anything, the framework of Melina Matsoukas’ searing, timely and brilliant “Queen & Slim” is much more akin to “Thelma & Louise.”

As much as the 1967 film romanticized Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, they were career criminals who murdered a number of law enforcement officials and innocent citizens.

Like Thelma & Louise, Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) have never been in any kind of trouble until a confrontation they didn’t initiate goes horribly wrong, and they find themselves on the run because they feel they don’t have a choice.

They’re outlaws of circumstance, not of choice.

Kaluuya’s Slim is a man of faith who works at Costco and has a Honda with the license plate “TRUSTGOD.” Jodie Turner-Smith’s Queen is a criminal defense attorney who fights for the underdog.

They each swiped right on a dating app, and now they’re in a nondescript diner in Cleveland, fumbling through an awkward first date.

Queen wonders why Slim chose this place. Is it all he could afford? It’s black-owned, he replies. She’s impressed, a little.

Slim asks why Queen swiped right on him after ignoring him for weeks. I liked your picture, she answers. You had this sad look on your face. I felt sorry for you.

Time to call it a night. They get into the car and Slim inquires as to what will happen next — and Queen says he’ll be dropping her off and that’ll be that. “You didn’t think we were going to have sex, did you?”

Maybe they’ll get together again. Not a sure bet.

And that’s when a police car pulls them over, and a combative white cop starts barking orders and orders Slim out of his vehicle, and Queen exits the car and identifies herself as an attorney, and the cop pulls out his gun, and shots are fired — and it’s all over in a flash, with Queen wounded and the cop dead on the ground.

With the soundtrack from artists ranging from Solange to Herbie Hancock to Fela Kuti to Vince Staples feeding the dramatic beat of the movie and setting just the right mood from scene to scene, Queen & Slim hit the road and start traveling south, with only the flimsiest notion of a plan in mind.

Why didn’t they call 911 and remain at the scene of the shooting? Because a black man shot a white cop with his own gun, and Queen convinces Slim they’ll have no chance if they stay and try to tell their side of the story. They’ll wind up in prison for life.

Queen and Slim throw out their phones — which could be used as tracking devices — so it takes a while before they realize they’ve become subjects of a national conversation and even marches in the streets. The news networks keep playing the police car’s video footage of the shooting, sparking an intense debate about whether Queen and Slim are murderers or anti-heroes.

The journey takes Queen and Slim from Ohio through various Southern states (with clear and overt references to slave catchers chasing runaway slaves in the 19th century) and eventually to Florida.

In “Easy Rider” fashion, they encounter a wide array of characters along the way — some friendly, some who think they should be put away.

Bokeem Woodbine (pictured with Indya Moore) plays Queen’s uncle, a pimp, in “Queen and Slim.”
Universal Pictures

The screen-commanding Bokeem Woodbine is Queen’s Uncle Earl, a motor-mouthed pimp who is less than thrilled when Queen and Slim show up at his door. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Chloe Sevigny are a Georgia couple who find Queen and Slim in their home and are deeply divided over whether to help them or turn them in. Jahi Di’Allo Winston is terrific as an impressionable black kid who is thrilled to meet Queen & Slim, who are becoming graffiti-worthy social media heroes to him and others.

With a richly layered screenplay by Chicago native and “The Chi” creator Lena Waithe (from a story by James Frey, yes, that James Frey of “A Million Little Pieces”) and expertly paced and framed direction from first-time feature filmmaker Melina Matsoukas, “Queen & Slim” is filled with keenly observed social commentary — but it also finds time for some soaring moments of inspiration, a little bit of comedic relief, and a red-hot romance between Queen and Slim.

Sure, that first date was tepid, but when you’re on the run for days and you get to know all about one another and you have the feeling you might not get out of this thing alive — then yeah, one can see how the fire could be ignited.

Kaluuya has already demonstrated his versatility in films such as “Get Out” and “Widows” and “Black Panther.” Newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith gives a breathtakingly authentic performance. It’s the kind of work that instantly announces the arrival of a movie star.

This is one of the best and most important movies of the year.