The first feature from director Melina Matsoukas (Insecure) escalates an unfortunately common incident of institutional racism into a story of love in a burning world, as a date becomes a national scandal and rallying point across the country. But is Queen & Slim based on a true story? Anyone who's seen horrific videos plastered across social media of black Americans being brutalized by law enforcement would say yes, and that's intentional.
Though the true-life (albeit glamorized) tale of lovers-turned-thrill-killing-bank-robbers Bonnie and Clyde bears some surface resemblances to the film, Matsoukas dislikes that comparison. "It's a diminishing way to describe our film, and a lazy way to understand it," she tells THR. "I don't like basing black films on any white archetype. Bonnie and Clyde were criminals; Queen and Slim are very much not."
Queen and Slim's couple are united by the trauma of the film's inciting incident. While driving on a first date, Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya) are pulled over, ostensibly for a minor traffic violation. After the police officer escalates the situation, Slim takes his gun and shoots him. Video of the incident goes viral, with the media branding the two "cop killers" while they simultaneously become symbols of all the anger, pain, and inequality experienced across America.
Matsoukas wanted to share the lived black experience with an audience and show them the guardedness that casts a pall over interactions non-POCs rarely have to consider. The film is initially, and purposely, set in Ohio, a state that not only still has the death penalty, but according to a recent study "is plagued by vast inequities” based on race, gender, and geography in meting it out. More specifically, it starts in Cleveland, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by a police officer while playing outside in 2014. Matsoukas told Elle she'd actually scouted that very playground not a year before for a commercial and intentionally focused Queen & Slim in Ohio because of what had happened there.
Queen is a civil rights lawyer, specializing in helping those on death row. As she and Slim try to escape the law by fleeing south to Cuba, they're helped along the way by people sympathetic and not — even those who believe the couple's violence will only incite more violence understand what happened was rooted in a terribly skewed and unfair system.
That video is the medium of their infamy is no coincidence, either. Matsoukas described the seemingly endless streams of video showing black people brutalized or murdered as making life feel like a war zone, while simultaneously desensitizing viewers. Memory and legacy become important weapons in the fight for equality. "Black people are sometimes more celebrated in death than in life... That's why I feel like we could not let the people who have passed — the Sandra Blands and Eric Garners — die in vain," Matsoukas told The Atlantic. "This [movie] is really for them. It’s to honor what they gave us unintentionally. They were fighting a war that they didn’t even know they were in, and we want to carry on that conversation."