The history of American movies is full of lovers and other strangers on the lam. Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise, the criminal innocents of “They Live By Night” and “Badlands” — even the kids of “Moonrise Kingdom.” “Queen & Slim” belongs in this lineage but is nevertheless something quite a bit more: A bulletin, a warning, and a heartbreak from an America forever riven by racial inequity. It’s a tale as old as time and a story ripped from the news feed; a dream of connection and an anvil to the heart. See it for the arrivals of a directorial talent and a stunning young actress, and see it to remind yourself of this country’s ancient and eternal sins.
Which all sounds pretty heavy for a movie that starts with a Tinder date in a Cleveland diner. He (Daniel Kaluuya) is a scruffy, easygoing dude with a license plate that reads ‘TRUSTGOD.” She (Jodie Turner-Smith) is a public defender with a personality as tightly wound as her long, swinging braids. It’s not a meet-cute, it’s a meet-brusque, but he gives her a lift home, or tries to, until the lights of a police cruiser come on behind them.
Because they’re black and because even the most obtuse white viewer in 2019 understands what that means, the tension immediately goes from zero to 120. And not without reason: The cop (played by country singer Sturgill Simpson) has a hair trigger and doesn’t much like women in passenger seats firmly asserting their rights. It all goes south in unexpected ways and the next thing we know, the couple are literally headed south. But where can two fleeing African Americans go in an America that’s a locked room?
We never learn their names until the end of the movie; the movie’s title nicknames are never actually spoken. The two are allegorical figures forcefully reminding us of what it is to be on the unlucky side of the color line in this country, but it’s the good grace of “Queen & Slim” — and the talents of everyone involved — that they’re are rendered as unique, fully realized individuals, touching in their specificity. Kaluuya arrived on the half-shell of “Get Out” (2017) but broadens his palette here as a regular guy who has always coasted on his faith in God and destiny but suddenly has to make his own fate against stiff odds. We see a half-formed man take shape before our eyes.
Turner-Smith, in her first major role, is a plain revelation. Her character is a queen when the movie begins, and an angry one, armored in a white work suit that becomes blemished with blood. As her partner strengthens over the course of “Queen & Slim,” she softens, while retaining a desperate warrior ferocity. (When the two change hairstyles to avoid capture, her flattop gives off a nice Grace Jones vibe.)
One of the weary, tragic “jokes” of the movie is that the two are instantly recognized by every person of color whose path they cross in their wayward journey toward Florida, the bottom of America, where they dream of a plane that might take them to Cuba. Some of those people, like a grizzled garage mechanic (Gralen Bryant Banks), don’t approve of what they did; others, like the mechanic’s young grandson (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), have already turned them into folk heroes, with disastrous results.
The script is by the actress-writer-producer Lena Waithe (with James Frey, of “A Million Little Pieces” fame), and the director is Melina Matsoukas, making an impressively confident feature debut after a stellar career directing music videos. (She won a Grammy, her second, for Beyoncé’s “Formation.”) While “Queen & Slim” has a few too many moments in which you feel the filmmakers’ invisible hand — when you may say to yourself, ”Do our heroes really have to stop here or make this decision?” — it’s also a film that mournfully acknowledges the flawed, hopeful humanity of everyone involved.
Matsoukas makes sure we see the dashboard photo of the police officer’s wife and child. Queen’s uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) is an Iraq veteran and current pimp whose history with his niece is complicated, to say the least. One of the women in his stable (played by the trans actor Indya Moore, of TV’s “Pose”), empathizes with these outsiders more keenly than anyone else in the movie. We see black cops on the line against Black Lives Matter protesters or putting up with slights from white partners. We see a white couple (Flea and Chlöe Sevigny) who harbor the fugitives in a scene that stirred echoes in this critic of Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” We meet opportunists and saviors of every shade.
Which is not to say “Queen & Slim” is unrealistic in matters of race. To be a white viewer watching this film with a predominantly black audience, as I was, is a full-body/out-of-body experience — I’ve rarely felt a theater crowd so intensely breathe (and hold its breath) as one. There’s a lovely late-night scene halfway through, though, in which the two dare to step into a country roadhouse (the ancient bluesman Little Freddie King is on stage) and you can actually feel the movie’s muscles relax. Everybody recognizes the two. Everybody lets them be. It’s a nice dream.
But it is a dream, and the great power of “Queen & Slim” is its insistence that all of us have to be wide awake to the realities of America, all the way down the line. Nothing else will save us, if it’s not too late.
QUEEN & SLIM Directed by Melina Matsoukas. Written by Lena Waithe and James Frey. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith. At Boston area theaters. 132 minutes. R (violence, some strong sexuality, pervasive language, brief drug use)