Following her acclaimed music videos for Beyonce and Rhianna, Melina Matsoukas delivers a tense and timely thriller with her feature film directorial debut “Queen & Slim.”
Captivating performances by “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya and newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith – whose characters are only named in the film’s title – help to keep the powerful, poetic drama driving forward, even when the script from Emmy winner Lena Waithe (“Master of None”), who developed the story with controversial novelist James Frey, gets bumpy and uneven.
The cinematic journey starts in an intriguing spot: In a rundown Cleveland diner, two strangers matched by Tinder are having a lackluster first date: He is an easygoing retail worker with a ready smile and a solid faith in God, while she is an uptight attorney and atheist with a frosty demeanor.
On the drive to her house, a minor moving violation leads to a traffic stop with a hostile police officer (Sturgill Simpson), and it escalates quickly when the lawyer states her rights and reaches for her phone to record the encounter. The patrolman draws and fires his gun, an altercation ensues, and the cop ends up shot and killed.
Convinced they won’t be treated fairly by the cops, the courts or the media, the mismatched couple leaves the scene, destroys their phones and goes on the lam. Fleeing first to her estranged Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), a disturbed Iraq War veteran who is a pimp and criminal based in New Orleans, they make a plan to escape to Cuba.
But a nationwide manhunt is underway, even as the dash cam video of their run-in with the Cleveland cop goes viral. As they wind their way southeast, they realize that some people consider them murderers or troublemakers, while others believe they are folk heroes and symbols of racial injustice.
Like billboards on a highway, the filmmakers pepper “Queen & Slim” with symbolism, from the poorness of the black neighborhoods the unwitting outlaws hide in to the quick trigger finger on a white female cop who bears no small resemblance to former Tulsa police officer Betty Jo Shelby.
Matsoukas and Waithe make several bold storytelling decisions, including narrowing the storytelling perspective to just the couple, who, without their smartphones, are largely cut off from the world. That means the sterling supporting players – Chloë Sevigny, Flea and especially 15-year-old Jahi Di’Allo Winston – are saddled with much of the exposition, and Waithe doubles down on that artistic choice by intercutting the film’s sole sex scene with an angry protest in the clueless couple’s honor that ends in violence and tragedy.
But it also ensures that the story is told exclusively from an African American perspective, an invaluable insight that art forms like cinema are intimately and effectively equipped to provide.