When I get pulled over by the cops, I don’t ever worry about getting shot. And that’s not because I am polite or non-threatening or have no criminal record. It’s because of the colour of my skin. It is a privileged position to occupy and I didn’t earn it, I just have it.
Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) don’t have that same privilege, because their skin is darker than mine. When they get pulled over driving home after their first date, the cop is immediately suspicious, belligerent and demanding. Slim is ordered out of the car, required to pop his trunk, and when he asks the cop to hurry it along, has a gun pulled on him as he is told to get on the ground. Worse, when Queen jumps out of the passenger side and slowly and loudly announces she is going to record this confrontation with her cell phone, the cop shoots her. Slim goes for the gun and in the ensuing struggle, the cop is accidentally killed, instantly turning Queen and Slim into two of America’s most wanted.
Could Queen and Slim have done things differently? Sure they could have. There probably was a scenario where their lives and the cop’s life went on as normal. But this isn’t that story. Queen & Slim is about the repercussions of the traffic stop gone wrong, and its greatest strength is making the chase relatable to someone who wouldn’t necessarily make better choices but by reason of his skin colour would likely face very different consequences for any mistakes he made (and probably no consequences at all).
Screenwriter Lena Waithe delivers a believable situation and sympathetic characters. She also does well to detach the public portrayal of Queen and Slim from their actual personas. They did not ask to be outlaws and they did not choose to become fugitives. Those were the only choices they were left with after a cop accidentally got shot. It helps immensely that we get to know Queen and Slim, ever so briefly, before their fateful confrontation with an overly aggressive cop. We get to see how the chase is framed from the outside while also seeing that there are not two sides to this story, that the lazy media narrative framing these two as cop-killers is more than just wrong, it is dangerous.
Left unsaid, but hanging in the air to digest afterward, is the question of how many more times does this sort of thing have to happen in real life before our society stops arguing over whether there is a problem and starts working together to fix it. The biggest strength of Queen & Slim is that Waithe doesn’t shy away at all from the underlying social issues but manages, above all else, to be a compelling love story about two people who just wanted a chance at a second date.