In a slightly seedy diner in Ohio, a black man and woman sit opposite each other in silence. While she fiddles with a few leaves of plain salad, a look of disgust on her face, he noisily slurps down a plateful of scrambled eggs with a glass of flat Coca-Cola. Once he’s finished, Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) begins picking at the lettuce in his date’s plate, while Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) can only think of getting back home: tomorrow she’s defending a difficult case in court. Disappointed by their encounter, the two silently climb into a car whose radio blares out soul music. On the way, they are flagged down by a police officer, who, after an altercation, points his gun at Slim’s temple and fires at Queen.
Complete strangers just a few hours earlier, they are now forever linked by a crime – the murder of a racist cop. While the opening scene of Melina Matsoukas’s first feature film denounces the police violence that is currently endemic in the U.S., the rest of the story goes well beyond this narrow theme. Topical, modern and compelling, Queen & Slim doesn’t just lament the fate of black Americans shot down by the police forces who are meant to protect them, for it is also a powerful meditation on the African-American condition, a portrait of a community whose members are not just bat- tered by violence, poverty and discrimination but also healed by love, hope and mutual aid.
Matsoukas could have spun a tale where reason dominates, a moral fable in which Queen – the attorney who incarnates the rule of law – could have forced the murderer to turn himself in and plead legitimate defence. But the 38-year-old director instead chose to set her story in the real world, a place where blacks are never innocent and are condemned from birth simply because of the colour of their skin. “I wanted to talk about the problems facing the whole African-American community in contemporary society,” explains Matsoukas. So she sends her pro- tagonists off on the run in a sublime musical journey across rural, con- servative America, a place opposed to any kind of progress. From Ohio to Louisiana to Mississippi, the America of Queen & Slim is also black America, a country of multiple nuances, capable of the best and the worst, the most brutal and the most tender. The director turns her camera on the ambivalence of Western societies, at once “ultra-connected but highly individualist,” believing themselves progressist but remaining immobile where advances in the rights of minorities are concerned.