Queen & Slim tells the tale of a young couple forced to go on the run after a deadly clash with a police officer, deftly tackling the ripple effect of centuries of black suffering.
“Why do black people always feel the need to be excellent? Why can’t we just be ourselves?”
It’s a question flung between the titular couple in one of Queen & Slim’s quieter moments, but it zings off the screen with a poignancy that’s almost jarring. It’s one of many lines in the script that feel directed firmly at the viewer, because this is a film that will not let you sit back and relax – the questions it raises about race, identity and the black experience in America are as urgent as the journey that drives the plot.
Daniel Kaluuya’s God-fearing everyman ‘Slim’ attempts to elicit some warmth from weary defence lawyer ‘Queen’ – played by truly brilliant newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith – to little success. But as soon as a police car emerges in the rearview mirror on their way home, the low-level tension of the evening expands into full-blown fear.
The next few moments are an expertly painted illustration of how an ordinary man – one who was too mild-mannered to tell a waitress she’d brought him the wrong order just minutes ago – can end up killing a police officer.
Slim’s fear, Queen’s outrage and the police officer’s disdain swirl together to create what seems like a grimly predictable perfect storm. But there are no black bodies in the snow at the end of this altercation – only two relative strangers forced into intimacy as they begin a life on the run.
The ensuing journey oscillates between breathtakingly beautiful images – the sweeping cornfields of the American South, New Orleans’ candy-coloured houses, the neon glow of a Mississippi juke joint – and halting home truths about the ripple effect of black suffering in America.
This juxtaposition serves to keep viewers uncomfortable, and it reaches crescendo in a sex scene that’s cut through with images of black Americans clashing with police – the intensity of these two daily realities entwined to poignant effect.
History and symbolism infuse Queen & Slim at every turn: character names give nods to African-American poets and Black Panthers; images of prisoners working the fields are chillingly close to chain gangs; and the pair find a safe haven in a bar called The Underground, invoking the ‘railroad’ that once carried slaves to freedom.
Indeed, as the couple flee from the authorities, they rely on the kindness of strangers and people who believe they are folk heroes deserving of protection.
Rarely does a film offer so much; it’s truly a feast for the senses, with dreamlike cinematography and an incredible soundtrack (you will cry when you hear Lauryn Hill come in).
But Queen & Slim’s weight lies in the rich, uninhibited way in which it honours the African-American experience, from the traumatic to the joyous. This is a film by black people, for black people. But it’s imperative that everyone else see it, too.
Queen & Slim is in cinemas in the UK from 31 January and in the US now.
Meena Alexander is Stylist magazine’s features editor.